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A SIMPLE JOBS PLAN: For Columbia's low-income neighborhoods

Getting work needs to be simple if we want everyone to work.


COLUMBIA, Mo 9/26/13 (Op-Ed) -- If the nearly two dozen mostly young black men who politely approached me this spring and summer looking for work are any guide, Columbia might consider a "casual labor" or "casual employment" program that makes it easy to hire someone for a day or even a few hours, pay them cash, and know something about their skills. 
 
The jobs issue came up repeatedly at last night's crime task force meeting. 

For the past 11 years, during Missouri's warm months, I've spent most of my days and some of my nights in Columbia's central city, working indoors and out, often 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

On virtually every street, I've struggled to make 90-year-old houses the best little homes they can be, within the limitations long, hard rental living and a century of infrastructure neglect have imposed.  Columbia's central city is a fine and beautiful place, with old-growth trees and old-time family homes, so tidy not a blade of grass is amiss. 
 
It's also a place that has needed me, as I have needed it. 

This year, I took my labors to a different central city, but witnessed the same phenomenon:  young black men politely asking if I had any work.   "I can paint that for you, sir.  I'm an excellent painter.  I can haul that trash, mow the lawn, clean the windows, tuckpoint those bricks." 

I do a lot of this work myself, and so am often asked if I need any help. 

I started rehabbing old buildings in Tacoma, Washington's central city years ago. 

I was young and working feverishly to turn around a long-suffering environmental business on a shoestring budget.  The opportunity presented after the business went under, in a century-old building that was equally shaky.  An employee who had sought work for over a year, I found my lifeline cut after only a few weeks on the job. 

I learned the value of casual labor from a group of Marine, Army, and Air Force veterans, young men recently discharged from one of the nearby military bases (Ft. Lewis, McChord, Bremerton).   I was a Navy vet, so we had something important in common. 

Most of the guys were black, a few Hispanic, one or two white.  They had either grown up in the area or found themselves without enough money to leave.    They didn't have reliable transportation; city buses were expensive and inefficient;  and so their search for work was "hyper-local."  I found out how local when I moved the business just four miles away.   I needed their help many times, but transportation proved impossible.     

The crew's leader, who organized and ran the jobs -- cleaning and painting, moving and hauling -- was a friendly, outgoing, sincere fellow named Paul Moore

I got to know Paul mostly through his family, checking out childhood photos, and learning what it was like to grow up with a big bro everyone knew was going places:  Paul's brother Bobby, who became Ahmad Rashad, the Minnesota Vikings football star turned sports commentator. 
 
I'd pay Paul and his crew cash at the end of every job, sometimes after one or two hours, sometimes after one or two days.   It was a no-bullshit, win-win proposition that didn't involve income tax withholding, unemployment insurance, Social Security taxes, FICA, FUTA, Obamacare, or a complicated government "jobs program." 

I got good work, on time, at agreed-upon prices I could afford.   Paul and the guys got some "walkin' around money," as he put it.  "Every man needs a little workin' capital in his pockets." 
 
It was the free market at its open, unregulated, unhampered best.  

I later learned the hard way Paul and his crew were the exception, not the rule.  Paul knew the likes and talents of each person, and most had just come from military enlistments with fresh skills, including how to show up on time, ready to work. 

Other casual workers I've hired were not as punctual or competent. 

I thought painting a room was a simple proposition until I hired a guy who did something with a paint roller I'd never seen -- and still can't quite describe.  He shook, jabbed, smacked, and poked it onto the walls when all he needed to do was roll. 

I politely let him go, and he got bent out -- thought he'd done a remarkable job!  A Michelangelo of the Bedroom Wall, if he did say so himself.   I didn't want things to get any more uncomfortable, so I paid him in full and painted over his masterpiece.  

A few casual labor disasters later, I realized I needed a Paul Moore:  A person -- or organization -- that knew the skills of the people I wanted to hire, knew something about their backgrounds, something about them. 

Would they show up on time?  Would they do a good job -- or work with a hangover?

The most basic of basic stuff, because getting work needs to be simple if you want everyone to work. 

But it's not simple, as Fred Parry reminds in an editorial praising a major reason I've taken my work elsewhere:  the local Bosses' efforts to Blight the neighborhood I've loved on for over a decade, ostensibly to create jobs, but with a complicated mess of a program called "EEZ."
 
"The most vocal opposition to EEZ's came from factions outside the central city," Parry writes.  "Opponents who had little stake in the game." 

Really?  What about me, the loudest opponent of all?  What about my 11-year, back-breaking stake in the "game?"  What about all the other people in central Columbia who've worked just as hard, and who -- like me -- found Blight -- and the Big Business incentive attached to it -- a dreadful and frightening slap in the face? 

If we want everyone to work for an honest buck, we must have an honest effort to make getting work as simple as possible.  

Coming into the "game" with dishonesty -- that it's "all about jobs" and not about developers, corporations, and more ways to pay the government -- is a strategy that will fail, time and again.
 
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
 
 
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