MAXWELL:  To fight poverty, first build character

6/4/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg


John Nevin, a black businessman in this South Florida city, is on a quest that is admirable for its good intentions but is limited for its failure to tackle reality. Nevin’s effort, unwittingly built on a false assumption, is one that House and Senate leaders, and President Clinton, should study as they overhaul programs for the poor.

The Information Age is leaving the city’s black neighborhoods behind, Nevin told the Sun-Sentinel. “If people don’t have access to this information age, they are going to be totally lost.”

Nevin, 46, established and operates the Vanguard Chronicle Network, an area on-line communications service similar to America Online. In two years, he has installed more than two dozen terminals that serve poor residents in facilities such as a restaurant, a day-care center, a health clinic, a public library branch. Users can access free information about jobs, community events, business ventures, bank services, crime and census data and contract bids.

During the Memorial Day weekend, I observed several black businessmen accessing potential bids and venture capital contacts on a Vanguard terminal. Although I was glad to see these people using the service, I was distressed that those who need it the most _ the thousands of young black males on the streets or in jail and other blacks out of work or on welfare _ cannot benefit from its vast resources.

I saw this truth as I left the building. While the businessmen were inside using the computer, the police had six young black males spread-eagle on the hot asphalt outside. Because of the implications of such paradoxical scenes, Vanguard Chronicle Network and other national efforts, including federal job-training programs, that try to bring information and opportunities to the poor rarely produce the results they want.

Why? Because the creators of these ambitious programs erroneously assume that all of the people they intend to help merely need an opportunity to succeed _ or the right software package, the right resume-writing course, the right lecture on proper dress, the right job-training. Increasing numbers of personnel managers willing to speak publicly say that none of these things matter to people unfit for the world of work.

And what makes a person ready for this world?

Nevin himself is a good example of someone with the right stuff. Born and reared in a working-class family in New York City, he found a way to attend culinary arts school. He moved here, worked hard, gained the respect of the right people and became a high-ranking chef at two of the area’s most-exclusive hotels. Not satisfied with working for others, he started a medical transcription agency in 1985, a monthly newspaper with a circulation of 31,000 in 1991 and the Vanguard Network a year later.

To succeed, Nevin needed something more than training and skill. He had to draw upon qualities that are not taught in a classroom or are downloaded from cyberspace.

The qualities that Nevin drew upon are described by Richard I. Barclay in a May 24 column for the Wall Street Journal. As vice president of a family-owned company in California that remanufactures telephone equipment, Barclay has interviewed, hired and fired hundreds of people. For unskilled or semi-skilled jobs _ those the poor most often get _ Barclay says his company does not need trained employees. He needs dependable, hard-working people of “character.”

He has learned an essential lesson that people such as Nevin and most members of Congress fail to learn: Many people are unemployable. They cannot be on time; they cannot work fast; they cannot follow directions. They go from job to job, never advancing. Or they drop out.

Barclay writes: “There are people out there who simply cannot change their aversion to work any more than they can change their preference for their favorite ice cream flavor. And I’ve seen it in every color, ethnic group and sex. I can train a person to disassemble a phone; I can’t train her to not get a bad attitude when she discovers that she’s expected to come to work every day when the rest of us are there. I can train a worker to properly handle a PC board; I can’t train him to show up to work sober or to respect authority.”

If he is right, the prospects are grim for improving the lot of millions of poor people by closing the gaps between the economic classes. What, then, is society to do about the unemployable whom Barclay describes?

My initial reaction, as I suspect would be the case for most Americans, is either to shoot the messenger or escape into denial. But we should do neither. Why not face the truth that some people are ill-suited for the workplace? If we face this truth, perhaps we can make some real progress. Instead of spending billions on training adults who, in the long run, are not going to succeed because they lack “character,” why not try now to save the next generation?

I have no solid answers. But as a first step, I suggest we scale back the exotic services that fail to produce adults who are able to work. Why not replace these services with long-term character-building programs for young children before they adopt the destructive behavior of adults? Perhaps then, as Barclay suggests, youngsters can be taught the difference between simply “wanting money” and “wanting to work.”

Somehow, we must inculcate a sense of the inherent value of work.

Obviously, we cannot throw up our hands. Nor can we continue to throw away good money and waste time. And we most certainly must stop creating myths that naively ennoble the poor. How many more doomed job-training programs can we establish? How many more computer terminals can we install in neighborhoods where residents are unable to use the information?

We will fail in all of our efforts if we do not try to build “character” first. I am convinced that “character” is the answer to many of the problems of the poor.

And please understand that I do not hold the poor in contempt nor blame them for their condition. I was a migrant farm worker as a young child and as a teenager. We often did not have food for days on end, and I cannot count the number of nights we slept in our car or on the ground.

So I have some understanding of poverty. And based on my experiences and reading, I am convinced that the young children of the poor can be taught the values necessary to succeed in the workplace. Saving these children should be our top priority. First, though, we must tackle reality.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.