News Analysis: Green Jobs Promise Broken? Low-Income Workers Find Road to Green Jobs Tough Going

By Claudia Rowe, New America Media
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:58:00 AM

By now, the drumbeat is impossible to ignore: jobs, jobs, jobs. With one in 10 adults unemployed, President Obama had little choice but to highlight jobs during his Jan. 27 State of the Union address. He mentioned the term nearly 30 times during the hour-long speech. 

But among people in low-income and minority communities—millions who had felt a surge of excitement at the president’s vow to use his $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for lifting families out of poverty—the president’s words are beginning to ring hollow. For them, the mantra has shifted and it sounds like this: Track, track, track. 

Despite $500 million set aside to create “green jobs” for disadvantaged workers—including a program titled “Pathways Out of Poverty”—there is no method in place to monitor exactly where Recovery Act dollars have landed on the ground, and few requirements to ensure that low-income communities benefit. Furthermore, there never were. 

“This is hardly the first time that poverty has been used as a rationalization to pass a government program which—when you read the fine print—doesn’t address poverty,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Good Jobs First. “It certainly goes to this issue of how can you tell the recovery is really benefitting those who need it most? Obviously you can’t.” 

Central to the president’s stated vision for the Recovery Act was the notion that the new “green economy”—from wind turbine construction to home weatherization—would generate opportunities previously closed to the poor, and advocates like LeRoy jumped in fast, insisting that the government require states to provide data on the race, gender and residential zip codes of those receiving training or jobs. They also asked that employers be mandated to note employees’ work hours, pay per hour and whether health insurance benefits, if any, were included. 

Not a single request was granted. 

“Poverty is just the bait,” LeRoy said. “It may sound a little cynical, but that’s the truth.” 

Requiring such information would be new terrain for the federal government, he acknowledged, though the complete lack of it suggests to him that all the talk about creating new pathways to prosperity was, well, just talk. 

In Washington, D.C., officials appear flummoxed by the very notion of collecting such data. 

“I don’t even know how you’d do that,” said Cheryl Arvidson, a spokeswoman for the administration’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. 


Race and jobs: mum’s the word 

Social-policy experts, however, have been urging exactly this kind of tracking for months—and offering ways to put it in place. 

“For us, the response has been just silence, kind of a wall of silence,” said Jason Reece, a senior researcher at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “The administration is very shy about talking about race issues in particular, and a good way of not talking about race and marginalized groups is just don’t collect the data. It’s extremely frustrating.” 

Last fall, the Kirwan Institute began to do some tracking of its own, and the results were dismal. Of $25 billion in federal stimulus funds distributed directly to private firms in transportation and defense, only $1.6 billion—just over 6 percent—went to black-, Latino-, or women-owned businesses. By January 2010, there share of the pie had dropped to 5 percent. 

In Florida, where Kirwan researchers joined with activists at the Miami Workers Center to take a detailed look at the real-life effects of stimulus funding, results were similarly perplexing. Minority-owned firms received contracts worth only 12.6 percent of total value awarded in-state. And, of the 40 companies that won business funded by the Recovery Act, only four responded to Kirwan’s requests for data. 

“There’s this sense of desperation from local communities because they’re not seeing the effects of the stimulus,” said Matt Martin, a researcher with Kirwan, describing reaction to the institute’s report. 

And, the document noted: “Construction work tends to rely on exclusive networks. African Americans in particular have a hard time breaking into the business. This appears to be the case with the current stimulus-funded projects as well.” 

Jobs are vital, of course, to reviving the economy as a whole and the estimated number of those created or saved by the Recovery Act ranges from 640,000 to 2 million, depending on who’s counting. But the notion of green jobs had been greeted as a potential godsend for families struggling against decades of entrenched poverty. A green economy could employ low-skilled workers in solid, family-wage jobs while simultaneously aiding the environment. It seemed like a win for everyone. 

In Seattle, Michael Woo of the grassroots group Got Green spent last summer leading throngs of young people through blighted streets, showing them the possibilities inherent in every dilapidated home and broken rooftop. 

“Everywhere they saw problems, the solution was a job—a green job,” Woo said. 

He is not nearly so sure of that now. 

Despite a Washington law directing that minority and low-income workers be included in Recovery Act spending, Woo—who was part of an Equal Voice coalition lobbying the state for equity—has seen little actual hiring and zero effort to track exactly who is being funneled into the jobs pipeline. Of the 10 would-be workers he selected for weatherization training, only one, Yirm Seck, found employment, and that lasted for a total of three weeks. 


All trained up, but nowhere to go 

The $20-an-hour job was nice while it lasted, said Seck, hired by a nonunion firm to weatherize homes in a leafy, upper-class area of Seattle. But it wasn’t quite what he’d hoped for. 

“My expectations were that I’d complete the course, get certified and there would be avenues linking me to an actual job,” said Seck. “Instead, it’s ‘Hey, great, you’re certified, and, yes, there’s money here. But we can’t give you an actual date to start work.’” 

Despite completing two years of college, Seck, 28, spends most of his time parenting a 3-year-old daughter while her mother supports the family by working at a Seattle supermarket. He is African American and has been without steady employment for more than two years. 

“I thought the jobs program was a lot more organized,” Seck said. “But most of the people who went through those training classes still aren’t employed. I was one of the lucky few.” 

The president championed a green economy to help the poor, but data from the Applied Research Center suggest that the field is “highly exclusionary.” A November 2009 report noted that blacks and Latinos—with poverty rates more than twice those of whites—are poorly represented among green workers. The disparities are even starker for women of color: Only 1.5 percent of black women were employed in green jobs. For Latinas, it was 1 percent. 

“If you don’t recover the communities that have been hardest hit, there is not going to be a recovery,” said Hashim Benford, an organizer with Miami Workers Center. “We’d heard that there was going to be all this green jobs money. We had this concept of a jobs pipeline that would train people and link them up to employment. But from what I’ve seen nothing’s moving.” 

There are bright spots: New Jersey, for example, requires that half of all weatherization projects be performed by workers from low-income communities. Portland, Ore., has similar mandates. And in Los Angeles, an ordinance passed last spring is expected to create at least 60 jobs for residents of low-income communities retrofitting city buildingS. 

But such examples are few. 

Green for All, a national nonprofit monitoring progress in this sector, examined energy-efficiency bills in 30 states and found fewer than a third targeted low-income communities or workers of color. 

“Frankly speaking, sometimes people don’t care about the demographics—they just want to get the jobs out there,” said Vien Truong, a policy analyst with the group. “In Oakland, we have an unemployment rate of 18 percent, so it’s ‘Create green jobs—check.’” 

In the Deep South, few state policymakers are even talking about racial realities behind the Recovery Act. 

“Jobs for our community?” said Leroy Johnson, executive director of the Mississippi civil rights group Southern Echo. “It’s not working at all. It was all good thoughts and good policy. The problem is, it’s been left in the hands of governors. Where you have good governors, maybe you have a shot.” 

Johnson says his suggestion to get black workers certified for road building through apprenticeship programs was simply waved away. 

Elsewhere, trainers continue to reach out and encourage the hopeful-and-unemployed. But the longer this goes on without a job at the finish line, the more worried community organizers become. 

Ian Kim, director of the Green Collar Jobs Campaign at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, suspects there is already a glut of workers trained and ready to install solar paneling, for example, while projects to employ them linger far behind. 

“A year ago I was one of those saying, ‘Wow, this is a huge opportunity.’ But it can be really disappointing to find out that even the best programs can’t place half their graduates,” Kim said. “I don’t want to be setting people up, training them for jobs that don’t exist.”