In the course of twenty-six years in the executive search business I don’t know how many times a candidate for a position asked me the question, “What are the benefits that come with this job?”
I realize that “benefits” are part of a total compensation package. Generally, they were worth between ten to fifteen percent of the base salary the prospective employee would receive in dollar pay. So it always astounded me if the prospective employer were likely to give an applicant a new starting salary that was twenty to thirty cent above his present compensation why there should be such a concern about the extra benefits that came with the job. To me, the greatest “benefit” of a position was having enough money in the bank to be able to pay the bills, put money aside for savings and take the rest and have some fun.
We have become a country that has lost focus on the potential of a job, a business or a career and have become absorbed with “benefits.” We have also become a country where more of our citizens have decided that having a job is either demeaning or not worth their trouble because the “benefits” that government is showering on them makes it easier to sit home, eat some chips and watch the tube.
If a person followed a particular path for fifty years and found that path led nowhere, it has to be hard to admit that he went down the wrong road. Or maybe he simply lies to himself and says, I know my destination is only a few more years further along. That is exactly what our welfare programs have done since LBJ got the ball rolling with the Great Society.
If you are a regular reader you know that I am not a fan of the president. But Obama came out with what may be the first acknowledgement that has occurred from the Democrats in fifty years that there is a deeper, more fundamental problem – a real human problem – that throwing benefits at our poor population will not fix. It is a problem of family and a problem of education – or more correctly – a lack of them. For that I applaud him.
The president pointed out that in many black homes there are few if any educational emphases placed by the family which often consists of a single mother parent. This retards a child’s learning ability from an early age and that disability carries with him throughout his educational career. Thus, many black children are left at the starting gate which is already behind the place from which other children begin the race.
Providing an environment through pre-school may improve a child’s chance to gain a desire to learn and to acquire good study habits. That would certainly be a plus. But if we consider the amount of time that children spend at school versus the time they are at home it is important to realize that they spend more time with their parent or parents than with their teacher. If the home environment does not support or see a value for education that will in some measure mitigate negatively the positive influence of schooling.
The president touched on the fact (though he cited statistics that underestimated the real numbers) that a large percentage of black children are born out of wedlock and are raised in homes where only a mother is present. He further cited the fact that coming from a single parent home, a child had a far lower chance of either competing or excelling in school and that consequently there were only poorer paying jobs for which he would qualify later in life. This is at the heart of the problem – educational under-achievement being a derivative of the actual problem.
The entire basis of our welfare and for that matter our tax system encourages people to have additional children either through increased welfare payments or additional tax deductions. While people may realize that having additional children brings with it additional responsibilities and additional costs, there have been many cases of people who view having additional children as a way to increase their income. So if the president wants to address this problem fully he should offer some welfare reform plan which would minimize that thinking and the current reality.
As a role model for the black community, the president may make a difference in dealing with what is a national problem. But while religious faith may be waning in other sectors of the populace, the influence of pastors in black churches remains very strong. They, more than any politician, are likely to carry the most influence on the members of their congregations. And if there is to be a sea change in what has become a generational problem it will be up to them to set an example and preach the message.
There may be some who look at the record we have amassed in trying to deal with poverty, discrimination and ignorance and will say, “Great, another government program that won’t work.” Perhaps some will secretly find anger in the fact that the president specifically addressed this as a program for young black children.
But the fact is that uneducated, unskilled people turn to crime just to survive and all of us are potential victims of their ignorance and need. Anything that we do to improve their future has a direct impact on all of us. And if this program does make a difference, that would be a benefit to all of us.