Last week, a bipartisan lineup of political heavy hitters assembled at 398 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in Jersey City, New Jersey to commemorate the grand opening of Martin’s Place, the new home for the Jersey City Employment & Training Program (JCETP).
The guest list included not one, but four New Jersey Governors: Chris Christie (current, R.), Jim McGreevy (D.), Thomas Kean (R.), and Brendan Byrne (D.)—note the ratio. Other speakers included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Bob Mendendez, and Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP. These names, for better or worse, have made national headlines. One thought danced in my head: Wow.
There seemed something odd about the amount of fanfare surrounding this simple relocation of a local program that has been active for over a decade. Especially as, according to the numbers, it seems this particular program has been failing miserably.
JCETP is a non-profit agency founded to “help our community work,” as the motto goes; this includes assisting ex-convicts, veterans, and displaced workers find jobs. According to statistical data, the unemployment rate was 8.2% in 1998 when the agency was mandated. In the past 16 years, thanks to the JCETP, the unemployment rate has improved by 0%—it remains at 8.2%, and in fact, most years that rate has increased. However, as this grand opening suggests, the good politicians of New Jersey are tirelessly fighting to improve the plight of their underemployed and exploited citizens.
Jersey City Mayor Steven M. Fulop has been instrumental in tapping new talent—Jim McGreevy—to head the JCETP and in relocating the offices from Journal Square (the slowly dilapidating past hub of Jersey City) to Martin’s Place, located in the MLK Hub. As perhaps suggested by MLK, this Hub is located in a diverse but majority Black district. The crown of the recently dedicated Jackson Hill area (dare I say gentrification project?), the Hub was intended as a community-renewing shopping center but has experienced serial setbacks. Unable to sufficiently entice businesses, the development has suffered a lack of profitability since its beginnings and 14 years later the project is still in the red. As reported earlier in the year, according to Chris Fiore, assistant executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, even if the Hub could generate the full $915,000 a year of rent revenue possible (which so far it hasn’t), it would still be $175,000 a year in debt—no doubt further draining the pockets of the people.
The invitation flyer left on the residents’ cars within the Jackson Hill area read:
Please Join Us for the Grand Opening
Keep the Dream Alive
Be the Dream
Whose dream is this?
I’ve heard the “I Have a Dream” speech many times. I know the call for equality and recognition that echoes throughout every line.
How does the relocation of a struggling program to a failing development in an underrepresented community reflect this dream? Is this the change the people of Jersey City need? Or just more political showboating?
Asked why he supports JCETP, would be presidential candidate Gov. Christie replied: “I talk about this in the context of what a lot of people in my party talk about as pro-life. It seems to me that if you’re pro-life, you gotta be pro-life for the entire life—not just when they’re in the womb.” The JCETP exists not only to assist workers in finding jobs, but in identifying a positive pro-life purpose. Yet, African-Americans have one of the highest incarceration recidivism rates. Why? Simple. Ex-convicts are afforded few choices and no purpose.
The rhetoric is beautiful, but the numbers don’t lie. National statistics report African-Americans are 13% of the U.S. population and 37.3% of the prison population, six times more likely to go to prison than White counterparts. The unemployment rate for African-americans is 11.4% compared to 5.3% for whites. This trend is no different on the local level in New Jersey.
Those who need the services of a JCETP have become disillusioned by the system, and wonder where the jobs are after the fanfare is over. In her speech, Nancy Pelosi reflected on Saint Francis, the patron saint of her San Francisco district, saying: “He said, St. Francis did, ‘Preach the Gospel, sometimes use words.’ And what we are doing here today is preaching the Gospel.”
National politics and election cycles have hijacked the dream. Citizens need social reform, not rhetoric and relocation.
For JCETP, it’s nice to provide “training” but where are the actual jobs? Here’s to hoping that this new beginning for JCETP is what the people of Jersey City, and not politicians, need.