France Could Learn From U.S. Youth Riots

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Last month’s youth riots in France raised many important questions, including what that country must do to tackle chronic youth alienation and unemployment.

Some answers come from what we did after our own youth riots in the United States.
For six days in 1965, South Central Los Angeles exploded in the Watts riots. Twenty-four lives were lost, a thousand or more people were injured, countless buildings were destroyed, and 4,000 people were arrested – including many idle youth, most from minority backgrounds.

Media pundits quickly zeroed in on one particular policy issue: extremely high teenage unemployment.

Young people in America lived in one of two realities. In one, those who wanted to gained critically important work skills from part-time jobs that helped them build résumés and learn what employers and educators demand.

For youth living the other reality, however, even a part-time job at a food chain restaurant was extremely unlikely. A generation of young people, mostly urban and African-American, were aging into their 20s without ever seeing a workplace. They were hanging around, bitter, angry and without futures.

Little wonder that the Watts riots were set off by a mere traffic violation.

During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale ran the Vice President’s Task Force on Youth Employment. After looking at the literature, the task force concluded that little guidance existed for policymakers.

Should policy promote the teaching of work skills? Should it focus on providing part-time jobs if the young people agree to stay in school? Maybe young people need more “life skills,” in such areas as working in teams and critical thinking. Or maybe they need job search skills, such as how to write a résumé.

Perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on the qualifications of the young themselves, the task force figured, but on the firms that employ them. The task force looked at “demand side” policies, such as special tax incentives to reward employers who open their doors to these youth. It considered a higher minimum wage and wage subsidies for firms that hire young people. It looked at the evidence about the impact of public service jobs in government agencies for the hardest to employ.

In the face of this uncertainty, Congress enacted the Youth Employment and Demonstration Projects Act, which was in effect from 1978 through 1981. This act created the first office of youth programs in the U.S. Department of Labor, directed by Robert Taggart. The office funded many programs designed to aid disadvantaged and minority youth in urban areas. Most of the programs had evaluations, so Congress could assemble lessons for future legislation.

Over time, these and similar developments led to the creation of new local training programs and funding sources for the youth employment field.

Was it enough? Surely not, as indicated by America’s miserable statistics on youth unemployment. Nevertheless, while we have no reason for complacency, it is undeniable that after the Watts riots, we moved toward a new policy system, creating a basic infrastructure that holds the promise of serving urban and minority teens.

This is what the French need now: a spotlight on the problem, a learning agenda about various policy initiatives, immediate help for the most estranged youth and comprehensive efforts to connect education, training, services and the responsibilities of citizenship.

Here’s an outline for action, based on what we learned after Watts:

First, France needs to understand the causes of the riots. This inquiry will take time, but it could begin with a new generation of experimental programs that try different approaches to youth work.

Second, each strategy must be carefully targeted to those who need the most help – such as specific youth in particular suburbs of Paris.

Third, the country needs a community economic development approach that strengthens neighborhoods by using the skills and talents of unemployed French youth.

Finally, any new youth policy agency must include easy access to program assistance. Young people should know how and where to obtain help, and that help should be youth-centered. It’s probably best if the information is centralized in neighborhood “one-stop” youth centers.

When I was on the “Today” show years ago, the host asked me if such efforts were “fire insurance.” That seemed to be a poor choice of words. Who wants to promote these programs based on fear?

Frankly, however, they are fire insurance. But they are also far more.