Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Teach your children about the Constitution this September

There’s a long-held urban legend in these parts that I always have a copy of the Constitution with me.
It’s not a legend; I really do have a pocket Constitution on me at all times.

That may seem somewhat over-the-top in regard to patriotism and perhaps a little nerdy, but the Constitution is the Bible of Americanism.

That simple yet powerful document is the guiding light to what is the greatest experiment in self-government - and, from that, the greatest society - that Mankind has ever known and will ever know, the United States of America. I strongly believe it’s our founding principles that made our nation great by allowing and inspiring Americans to be the very best that we can be. America is unique in that our natural rights were officially recognized and deemed inalienable by the Constitution, allowing liberty, self-rule and free markets to flourish.

Over the course of our history, though, the Constitution has seen some rough spots. Presidencies such as Lincoln’s, FDR’s, the younger Bush’s, and Obama’s have trampled over our nation’s legal and philosophical foundation with zeal.

Sometimes we need a reminder that the morality and virtuous free environment recognized and provided for by the Constitution is what’s best for whatever ails us.

Can it put an end to what seem like never-ending wars? Yes.

Can it heal our sickened economy? Yes.

Can it kill the numerous and creative ways being used to invade our privacy? Yes.

The Constitution can be - or will lead us to - the answers for all of today’s problems.
Most people have forgotten that. To them the Constitution has become an afterthought, maybe even an antiquity or novelty. Some even forget that it exists.

Enter “Constitution and Citizenship Day”.

Introduced as an amendment to an appropriations bill in 2004, Public Law 108-447 requires that any public school that receives federal funding educate its students on the Constitution on or by September 17 of every year in observance of the Constitution’s signing in 1787. It’s interesting to note that the law was penned by none other than the now-deceased Democratic Senator Robert Byrd who was never really known to be a Constitution enthusiast and it should also be noted that the Constitution in proper practice should prohibit the federal government from funding and dictating to public schools. But, nonetheless, it is the law.

Even without its edict it’s good citizenship to revisit and be reeducated about the document on its birthday. It’s a day just as important to America as July 4.

On the evening of September 17 make it a point to ask your children or grandchildren if they received an education about the Constitution in the days leading up to it. It’s not necessarily guaranteed that they will. An obscure law like this can be easily overlooked and, as history shows, even if it were followed our schools aren’t necessarily the best places for civics (teachers have to be super-focused on other matters while being forced to teach to standardized tests).

Plus, although many modern parents may not agree, it’s your responsibility to educate your kids as much it is the schools’; education shouldn’t end when the school bell rings. Take the time to discuss the Constitution with them. It doesn’t have to be a dry subject. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have shown that teaching about government can be exciting and character-building. Start young and they’ll better understand their duties as citizens and, as they age, what their government can and cannot do to and for them.

If your understanding of the Constitution is a little limited itself take the time to make it a shared learning experience with your family. There is plenty of great material on the web and among the very best is the “Overview of America” video which can be watched in its entirety on YouTube. You’ll come away enlightened.

Regardless of your knowledge, it’s imperative that you take the time to reacquaint yourself and your children with the Constitution. If more people did, it’s guaranteed that America would be in a better place than it is now during these trying and seemingly crazy times.

Sometimes, the old fashioned ways are the best ways. Our Founding Fathers were really onto something.

From the 21 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Friday, August 4, 2017

A modern Civilian Conservation Corps could provide summer jobs

Back in the day, a summer job for a teen seemed like a rite of passage into adulthood. As recent as the early 1980s, more than 70 percent of high schoolers held summer jobs. Now, that number is closer to 40 percent.

The reasons are many but there are two significant ones that immediately come to mind. Rising minimum wages have forced service companies to put more work on fewer people or find ways to automate. Older workers idled by the Great Recession and the tepid economic growth that followed have taken jobs that teenagers held so they can have some income, as small as it may be.

So, there is a glaring lack of opportunity for youth.

It’s a disappointing situation for those teens who, individually, might have wanted to accrue some experience for their resumes while getting some cash to buy the latest gadgetry, get a car or save for college.

When looked at collectively, the economy suffers. Summer jobs were once the training ground for general acclimation into the workforce. They taught teens soft skills like urgency, showing up to work on time, and working well with others. Those same jobs introduced them to a variety of duties and responsibilities that could be expanded upon in the adult careers – inventory control, customer relations, and management to name a few.

How do we overcome this and ensure these kids get the experience they need to be productive adults?

One idea that you will probably be shocked to hear from this columnist that you’ve likely classified as conservative or libertarian over the years is something from the socialist’s arsenal: We could stand to use a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As a reminder, the Civilian Conservation Corps was a critical component of FDR’s New Deal. During the Great Depression it put 3 million men to work in the nation's forests and parks, planting trees, building flood barriers, and maintaining trails. It gave them income at a time when it was hard to find and it improved the country’s natural assets. Locally, Letchworth State Park would not be what it is today without the efforts of the 3,000 men who toiled there as parts of the CCC.

A modern-day version -- run by municipalities or the states and not the federal government -- which would employ only teenagers as the general laborers at the minimum wage rate could answer the summer job shortage. The scope of the projects would not be as grand as that of the CCC; you couldn’t have teens run heavy equipment, use chainsaws, or take down trees.

But, look at any of the state parks to be found in this region or the state forests that dot our Southern Tier --- all of them are screaming for tender loving care. High schoolers could handle tasks like trail maintenance, erosion control, general clean-up and tree plantings. Doing so would give them critical job skills, get them sweaty with honest-to-goodness manual labor (God knows we need more exposure to that nowadays), and get them interested in and directly interacting with the environment (Americans talk a really good game about the environmentalism yet rarely get involved with it directly).   

You might ask: Wouldn’t this be a drain on the economy?

I don’t believe it would be.

Teens save very little for the long-term; they will spend everything they earn. Being part-time, seasonal jobs that last two months a year, we wouldn’t see taxpayer outlays on pensions, health insurance, and all the other pricey benefits.

More importantly, it’s workforce development. This gritty work would do as much if not more for getting kids ready for the Real World than what some of their simpler summer jobs used to do. If the state is willing to give corporations millions (billions?) to develop workers, why not invest it directly in the workforce in their formative years so employers/taxpayers will have to put less into their training as adults?

New York has a similar program in place that is off by a demographic. The Excelsior Conservation Corps was created by the Cuomo Administration in 2015 and it tackles projects with CCC gusto, but it employs only those between the ages of 18 and 25 and there are only 50 workers in the program. The ECC also employs workers for 10-month stints, rather than over the summer between semesters.

A modified CCC/ECC program could do wonders in fixing teenager unemployment (which is 13.1 percent, three times the general workforce), hiking trails and stream beds, and our workplace-preparedness issues.  

It’s time towns, counties and the state got their hands dirty -- or more accurately their teenagers’ hands dirty – and looked into the prospects of such an endeavor.  

From the 14 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Ban the box with education, not regulation

“Ban the box” is a movement spearheaded by civil rights groups that is aimed at persuading employers to remove from their applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record.

In some municipalities, it is more than a suggestion – it’s regulation. Buffalo, Rochester, and New York City, for example, all have laws on the books prohibiting that line of questioning.

Some unsuspecting firms that have multiple locations across the country have run afoul of these laws. For them, it’s a difficult law for human resources offices to manage with only 150 cities and counties having such laws in place. There’s inconsistency in its mandated use and if corporate HR is not up on local laws, there are problems to be had.  

Case in point: In 2016, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman penalized two retailers mightily for breaking the city of Buffalo’s two-year-old bam. Big Lots paid a $100,000 fine while Marshall’s was on the hook for $95,000.

It’s rather unfortunate that these laws are in place. Interviewing and/or hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds should be at the sole discretion of the employer.

Many businesses want to minimize risk and eliminate wasteful hiring practices. You certainly can’t fault retailers for not wanting a repeat thief managing their inventories or operating their cash registers. And why make social service organizations and non-profits not be able to initially set aside unqualified candidates who put their clients at risk (such as job applicants who might be registered sex offenders or those who have been arrested for DWI) before delving into the initial interviews and subsequent criminal background checks?

On the other hand, there are employers who don’t use the box. I’ve written here before about the value in hiring those with criminal records and specifically former convicts. When they are given that chance to work, they succeed. Ex-cons have been some of my best coworkers. The determination they possess to become new men, to stay clean and better themselves (and their families) furnishes an incredible work ethic. At one point just a few years ago, over a quarter of my workplace had criminal records and about a third of that group had considerable time in prison under their belt.  

While I see the value in society’s investment in ex-cons (the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year) and cherish the redemption and reformation of men when given steady, gainful employment (and hope), I also see that their employment could pose a risk in certain workplaces because not everyone reforms. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested (I would argue, though, that it may be attributed to the stigma employers have placed upon them -- here in New York, more than 60% of ex-cons remain unemployed 1 year after their release because of their records).

But to each their own when it comes to hiring. I don’t mind assuming the risk and can’t fault those who won’t.

That’s why I have enjoyed the approach Governor Cuomo’s office has taken with this issue. He could easily force legislation or institute executive decree that would mandate the banning of the box statewide. But, he hasn’t. Instead, he’s focused his team’s efforts on things like the community reentry council and ongoing employer outreach.

Last month, Cuomo and his team shared their message yet again, reminding employers of these endeavors while discussing the value of hiring ex-convicts in regard to business operations and public safety. He also officially launched the Work for Success Pledge and which aims to help pair job candidates who have criminal convictions with companies in need of labor.

That’s the best way to ban the box…with education, not regulation.

It’s simple: 1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record. Who are we to judge? And, at the same time, who are we to judge those who do judge?

Let employers make the decisions that best fit their corporate and personal cultures. They know their workplaces -- and themselves -- far better than any lawmaker ever could.  

From the 07 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers