The national unemployment rate for African-Americans showed a very slight decrease in March, falling to 14.0 percent from 14.1, but numbers show unemployment is still heavily affecting communities across the country. In Newark, New Jersey, it is hitting African-American communities especially hard.
African-Americans populate 52.4 percent of the city, and last year Black unemployment in the state exceeded 15 percent, compared to the 8.7 percent for whites, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When studying unemployment in the city of Newark, demographics of the unemployed population must be studied as well. In a city with approximately 280,000 residents, more than 1,700 individuals return to Newark from state prison annually, and an additional 1,400 Newarkers are released from the local jail every month.
In a fragile economy, getting a job can be difficult for anyone, but securing employment for ex-offenders when they are released is one of the biggest barriers. The New Jersey Department of Corrections says the recidivism rate — or a tendency to relapse into a previous mode of behavior, especially a relapse into criminal behavior — for individuals released within nine months from the Department of Corrections is more than 50 percent, mainly because formerly incarcerated individuals cannot find employment.
In an effort to put ex-offenders back to work, Newark Mayor Cory Booker created an Office of Reentry in 2009 to provide services to equip former incarcerated people with tools and experience to re-enter the workforce. He says that in order to decrease the unemployment rate in Newark, resources must be dedicated to the ex-offender population.
“At the end of the day, we have to look to get everyone engaged in work,” Booker tells BET.com. “The cost of failing to empower men and women coming back from prison is that the recidivism rates show us if you don’t provide hope and opportunity, they will not only be not employed, but many of them will choose to go back to an [underground] economy that drives so much of our crime here.”
Newark was the first city in the country to receive a Prisoner Reentry Initiative grant from the United States Department of Labor to bring a reentry system "to scale."
Under the reentry program, the city has provided more than 1,600 formerly incarcerated individuals with job development, job retention, case management and mentoring services. Of the participants they serve, 80 percent are African-American and 11 percent identify themselves as Latino.
“When we talk about unemployment and the barriers people face as a result of a criminal record, we have to address the barriers they face in getting employment,” says Ingrid Johnson, chair of the City of Newark Reentry Initiatives. “We recognize many people returning home from prison do not necessarily have the work experience other people have. The mayor has started a couple transitional jobs programs. The biggest one being a program called Clean and Green.”
Under Clean and Green, approximately 30 to 35 reentry participants work around the city developing urban farms and maintaining abandoned lots. Last year, the participants’ farm produced more than 5,000 pounds of vegetables, which were shared throughout the city, and they cleaned and maintained more than 500 empty lots.
Johnson says the participants "really get the experience of soft skills, skills that help them learn how to show up to work on time, deal with management and deal with conflict at work. It’s a very supportive work environment."
To help graduates of the program secure unsubsidized employment, the re-entry program contracts with job agencies. The job developer then advocates on behalf of the participants with local employers to help them find a personal match.
To date, the reentry initiative has helped more than 1,000 people receive employment in unsubsidized jobs; about 70 percent have retained their jobs for six months or longer.
"It’s important that no one gets left out of the equation when it comes to empowering the community. We're all in this together, and as [poet and social activist] Langston Hughes so eloquently said, 'There’s a dream out in this land with its back against the wall, to save the dream for one, we must save it for all,'" Mayor Booker paraphrased.
"That’s very true for our community," he added. "Everyone has to be a part of the equation."
To become a part of the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative, a potential participant must be referred by a parole or probation officer, come to city hall and talk with the mayor or a city council member to refer them, or be referred by someone who has obtained case management.
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