Katherine P. Thomas-Canfield
School Without Walls Senior High School
2nd Place, District of Columbia
The United States is facing one of the biggest economic crises of its history. The government has provided substantial relief to the poor and unemployed through increased unemployment benefits, food stamps and tax relief. These are important short-term relief efforts. However, one of the longer-standing problems underlying our entire economic and social system is the growing income disparity between the upper and lower classes. To close this income gap, people in low-income communities need more meaningful and higher wage employment. The process of closing this gap should begin with promoting the culture of work in poorer communities through increased access to jobs for youth. Then, business management, investment and entrepreneurship skills should be incorporated into school curricula to promote the value of work and savings. Finally, new and struggling small business owners should be provided technical assistance from seasoned business owners and financial assistance, where necessary, from local government. Income disparity can be reduced by providing (1) disadvantaged youth with more opportunities for higher paying jobs, (2) targeted educational programs, and (3) support for small business opportunities.
My three-step plan for tackling the growing income disparity begins with employing more low-income youth. Often there are no jobs in neighborhoods where low-income youth live, so they have to travel large distances to even get a job. Then, many employers are hesitant to hire any youth, let alone those from low-income areas. As a result, many people in poorer communities remain unemployed or unmotivated by their low-paying jobs. Consequently, youth from poorer neighborhoods have not been instilled with the culture of work—habits as simple, yet as valuable, as promptness, time-management, prioritization or responsibility. According to the capitalist theory, the more internally motivated a person is, the more likely they will be to succeed;1 this internal motivation comes from a sense of work ethic. In part to help develop this work ethic, the District government has formed the Summer Youth Employment program, which looks to create higher-paying and meaningful jobs for youth.2 Local governments should be responsible for building relationships with nonprofits, small businesses and larger governmental and corporate employers to extend these types of programs year-round. This program can be promoted to businesses through wage subsidies and tax incentives. Like the federal employee transit subsidy program, these youth employment programs should include a travel subsidy, if necessary. These programs will not only instill the culture of work in participants, but also provide them with the necessary work experience they will need to obtain higher-paying jobs in the future. In addition, because programs such as the Summer Youth Employment program emphasize finding jobs in nontraditional, non-commercial workplaces, participants will broaden their understanding of the wide spectrum of job possibilities. Therefore, in order to begin closing the income gap, government needs to make a larger investment in fostering the value of work in the lives of disadvantaged youth.
The second initiative to narrow the income gap is teaching personal finance and introducing professional development in high school curricula. A school curriculum that included courses on personal finance would aim to instruct students on how to better manage their money, to save and invest what they do have, and to make informed decisions based on their needs and expenses. Programs, such as JumpStart!,3 which teach courses on personal finance, should be incorporated into mandatory student classes with the goal of better preparing youth to be economically independent. In addition, the curriculum should include classes on professional development, teaching youth how to create resumes, conduct themselves in interviews, and gain access to internships to better prepare students to gain entry into the work force. These courses should focus on teaching students how to communicate their unique strengths appropriately to potential employers. These curricula can also encourage entrepreneurship through basic sessions on small business development and management. In addition, for those who have an interest, outside sessions should be made available where youth would be able to participate in forums about how to develop a business plan, including how to identify what types of businesses, and how many, can be sustained by a community. The school districts that include low-income neighborhoods should be responsible for developing courses in personal finance and professional development in order to help their students be competitive for higher-paying jobs and higher standards of living.
Finally, the last step in this process of minimizing income inequality would be the development of technical and financial support systems for prospective and current small business owners in disadvantaged communities. One of the major problems facing prospective small business owners is their lack of experience in business management. One of the steps Washington, DC has taken to address this is to establish the Small Business Development Center Network,4 which effectively pairs experienced small business owners with newer entrepreneurs. These types of coalitions of well-established and successful entrepreneurs and small business owners should be replicated in other communities to provide a mentorship program for new business owners in disadvantaged neighborhoods. These business mentors would be able to coach new entrepreneurs on money management, insurance, the process of effective hiring, and expansion and capitalization. This would help to ensure that new, small businesses were successfully established on a strong foundation. To the extent prospective business owners need help with start-up costs, the government should work to establish competitive grants. After new businesses are established, low-interest loans should be made available to new business owners. These types of financial support systems would help to encourage more small businesses. Small business owners often become community leaders because they have made such a large stake in the neighborhood in which their business is established; the success of their business is contingent upon the success of the community. Therefore, they are often more invested in the development of the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, small businesses themselves can make a neighborhood more desirable for current residents, as well as foster higher real estate values.5 Consequently, new businesses in disadvantaged communities improve the quality of life of residents. Successful entrepreneurs should be encouraged to support new business owners through technical support, and local government should be responsible for providing the necessary financial support, thereby bringing development to lower-income neighborhoods.
In order to close the income gap effectively, government should give priority to improving job opportunities for youth, creating financial education programs, and providing support for new business owners. One of the most important aspects of a thriving community is the success of its workforce. The government will need to work closely with the business community and other organizations to promote the value of working, so that youth in lower income families will have the skills and the opportunities to better their socioeconomic standing.
- Crumpler, Scott. "The Impact of Work Ethic on Income." Thesis. Guilford, 2002. The Impact of Work Ethic on Income. Guilford University, 5 Nov. 2002. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://www.scottcrumpler.com/documents/workethic.pdf>.
- Mallory, Lisa. "Summer Youth Employment Program." The Department of Employment. The District of Columbia, 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. <http://does.dc.gov/service/summer-youth-employment-program>.
- "Jump$tart.org | Get Involved." Jump$tart Financial Smarts for Students. Jump$tart Coalition, 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://jumpstart.org/get-involved6.html>.
- "Welcome to the D.C. Small Business Development Center Network." Washington, D.C. Small Business Development Center Network. U.S. Small Business Administration, 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2012. <https://www.dcsbdc.org/>.
- Chamberlain, Lisa. "Square Feet: Luring Business Developers Into Low-Income Areas." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2006. Web. 23 Oct. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/25/realestate/commercial/25credits.html?pagewanted=all>.