Dallas' Car Wash Story Is Really About Jobs, Prisons and the Future

Categories: Schutze

bls_graph.jpg
US Bureau Labor Statistics
Ninety million nationally not in the labor force
One more selfie here: This week I have a story in the print newspaper about City Hall's efforts to shut down a car wash in a poor neighborhood. It's actually the second time in a year that photographer Mark Graham and I have worked on a story about Jim's (no relation) Car Wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas. Before I shut up about it I (temporarily, I am sure), I want to make sure we all see the real recurring theme.

See also: Dallas City Hall versus The Car Wash

Community organizers campaigning to improve a long-blighted area around Jim's Car Wash really believe shutting it down will do the trick. But the real trick is recognizing the role the car wash plays in a stubborn national malignancy too often air-brushed off newspaper pages under the deceptively benign rubric, "not in the labor force."

The people who work every day and night at Jim's Car Wash hand-washing and "detailing" cars for a fee are part of a soaring national phenomenon: these are men and women who want to work hard and sincerely want to stay out of prison. If you don't believe me, go talk to them. Well, I did that for you. Go read what they told me.

Most of these people in effect are serving life sentences, fenced out of the mainstream economy and thereby out of mainstream society as if they were still behind prison walls, because they have felony convictions in their pasts. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines persons "not in the labor force as "those who have no job and are not looking for one." Almost all of the people I have talked to at the car wash would love to have "real jobs" but know they can't.

Many of them had good jobs before their big mistakes. One man, for example, Marshall Cornelius, was a Marine for nine years, drove a UPS truck for more than a decade, then took up with a bad girlfriend, got into dope, got caught selling, did time and is now permanently unemployable because of it. He doesn't want to go away again, so he gets out there every day and scrubs cars for $10 and $15 apiece, hand to mouth, hoping he doesn't get sick or break an arm.

I have been talking to people about all this. I'm still working on it. But one of the first big recognitions I have come to is that not hiring ex-felons is not necessarily an expression of vindictiveness or judgmental narrow-mindedness by employers. They face licensing and litigation issues that often make it impossible for them to hire even the most wonderfully reformed and redeemed former felon.

The other big light bulb, however, is that the issue is enormous, both nationally and here at home. Nationwide, the number of persons deemed "not in the labor force" soared this year to more than 90 million. The overall "participation" rate -- we might call it "IN the labor force" has recently been at 35-year lows , so low that it actually calls into question claims that unemployment is going down. At its recent worst, the national number of people not in the labor force was equivalent to 35 percent of the total who are old enough to work. Is unemployment truly going down, or is it just that more people gave given up?

Paul Krugman, my own favorite economist, has a piece in The New York Times today arguing that the War on Poverty has been a success. But I look at South Dallas and wonder. Are more people truly out of poverty because they have lifted themselves up? Or it is that more people have merely disappeared from the measurements because they have fallen beneath the radar?

In February I looked at employment in 50 census tracts in southern Dallas and found numbers way worse than the national 35 percent rate. In those 50 tracts I found 67,304 souls accounting for 44 percent of the potential labor force who were not in it. In 17 of those tracts, the percentage not in the labor force was more than half.

I found two tracts where the number was more than 60 percent. A bitter irony there, I thought, was those two tracts were closest to the exclusive, very expensive golf course the city is sponsoring there, supposedly as a boost to the nearby economy. What that number means is that 60 percent of the theoretically employable persons in that area probably cannot be hired by the golf course or by anybody else.

The problem is national. It's not the fault of Dallas City Hall or of southern Dallas elected leaders. Do we even realize, as a nation, that every time we send somebody to the pen for dope, we create a person who is effectively walled out of the labor force for life?

And maybe the better way to look at it is not as a problem or a guilt trip but as an enormous opportunity. Sure, among this population are some lazy people and some crooks who will never work at a job because they do not choose to. But my own gut and my own conversations with people at Jim's Car Wash lead me to believe that the far larger number are people who desperately want to work hard and lead decent honest lives.

I talked to a contractor once who makes a point of hiring ex-felons to work for him scrapping out old disused railroad tracks. I guess he doesn't worry about litigation. I asked him, when he's looking at a gang of show-ups for a job, how he can tell the worker bees from the drones. He said easy. When it's 105 degrees under a broiling Texas sun, you hand a guy a pick and say "Go dig out that railroad track." He said you know in two minutes if he or she is a worker.

Every person we can pull back into the legitimate workforce is an enormous gain for the economy and for the shared moral climate we all occupy. There's got to be a way. I'll let you know if I find anybody smart enough to figure it out.

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32 comments
Tom434
Tom434

Since south Dallas doesn't have a dog park, make it a dog park

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

From a community policing standpoint, other than raw land I can think of no easier property type to police than a self service car wash.  You can see through it and it doesn't have employees or cash registers to rob.  Loitering or congregating, as well as activity unrelated to washing your vehicle, is instantly observable from the street by the beat cop.  And crimes occurring on such a property use cannot be policed by the property owner, other than the posting of signs.  That job is a legitimate function of police hence, a car wash on a retail corridor cannot by definition be a nuisance or blight.  Every business situated on any main thoroughfare has a reasonable expectation to receive police protection to conduct legitimate commercial activity.

Housing off the main thoroughfares are far more prone to be the location of illegal activity so why?  Why go after this property?

Even a city park or other community use would present a greater threat since people can legally loiter and congregate on publicly-owned land.  This is private property and one of the few uses easily policed.

The cops just need to do their job.  And the City must be asked to cease harassing the property owner and do THEIR jobs instead of forcing the private property owner to sell. The City's stated reasons are thin, which makes you think there are other unstated motivations for going after this guy.

The property owner pays a lot of property and sales taxes for city services for normal police protection but he is getting the opposite.  It is ludicrous to demand he arm himself and defend his property when that responsibility is clearly a policing function.

pak152
pak152

"Paul Krugman, my own favorite economist, has a piece in The New York Times today arguing that the War on Poverty has been a success."

and Krugman lives in cloud cuckoo land

JustSayin
JustSayin

What am I missing?

This fellow and his son have been running a legitimate service business, hiring qualified employees who do a good job for the customer at a price that makes the business profitable and the Mayor says there is a problem.?

Who is the Mayor trying to protect?

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

Banner ad on ur home page for 9th annual MLKJr symposium to be held at a fancy black tie do.... so Dallas elite can stroke themselves sklly over how ooen minded they are.

Why not push to hold this at Jim's car wash, to get the proper cultural ambience.

roo_ster
roo_ster

What JS wrote with bells on it. 


Also, TPFKaP's point is very important, as importing more low-skilled workers of dubious legality increases the supply of labor, driving down the market price of labor. With a lower supply of legally questionable low-skilled labor, employers and insurers would be more likely to hire these folks.


Last, there is the point that some of these folks just are not cut out for a straight 9-5 job, felony record or no.  The federal gov't makes it illegal to hire on these folks at the wage level they are worth to the employer (given skills, aptitude, and motivation).   This sort of work is an opportunity that ought not be dismissed out of hand.

The railroad dude reminds me of when I was back in high school and college, I ran labor crews over the summers.  I was a big boy, had a clean record, a valid driver's license, was responsible, could follow instructions, and could put a hurting on folks if need be.   Obvious foreman material.  My best crew was made up of two wild-ass white trash boys from the sticks, a white convicted murderer who liked his meth, a black supremacist felon 'former' drug dealer(1), and another college student working for the summer.  Every one a hard-working muldoon.  Nowadays, there would be one English speaker and the rest illegal aliens.

.

.

.

.

(1) Him: "The white man is a motherfucker sent from Satan to oppress the black man."  Me: "I don't give a shit.  Get to work and get paid cash or I'll run you off."

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

I agree with you. The raw number seems sort of impossible. Here is how the BLS computes it:

http://www.bls.gov/cps/cps_htgm.htm#nilf

Here is what it winds up being now:.

http://o.dailycaller.com/all/2014-01-10-americans-not-in-the-labor-force-hits-another-record-high

Obviously it includes a lot of students, retirees and remittance men. But I heard an economist on PBS last night tell an anchor lady that old people are staying in the labor force longer while the rate of participation is falling among people in their mid 20s to mid 50s. The lowest numbers seem to be for black males, who are the people who get locked up the most. They also are the people most likely to leave school early while still functionally illiterate or marginally literate.

That's a big reason I have been high on Mike Miles, our Dallas reform school superintendent. He and others of his movement nationally are saying they know how to teach these kids to read and how to keep them in school. Always seems to me we should work very hard to figure out to stop producing large populations of unemployable persons, most of whom, by the way, are probably white, given the vastly larger number of white folks we've got in the country. Whoever they are: let's get them to work.

clemmoore
clemmoore

I know we have a problem in this area, but I have to question the number.  The 2010 Census says there are 203,007,521 folks in this country between 16 and 65.  So, almost half of the workforce is " not in the labor force " ?  Who's counted in that 90 million ?

bubbabgood2u
bubbabgood2u

You don't have to have gone to prison to have a felony record.  Just go slap or shove your girlfriend or spouse and then have the cops arrest you and charge you with Felony Spouse Abuse.  You serve your probation and go to counseling then you live the rest of your life with this on your record and the inability to get a decent paying job.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

Hopefully these marijuana legalization experiments will lead to a massive overhaul of drug laws. That alone would do wonders for this problem.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Jim, what is even worse is that the people you describe are pushed even further out of the workforce by illegal aliens, errr undocumented workers, ummm whatever.


Think of the number of people hiring the whatevers who would probably be hiring these people instead.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

don't have the answer to how to get the people you mention with priors a job. seems that it should be an easy thing but unfortunately just because a person wants to work doesn't mean there are those who will hire them. 

but what I can say is that we need to stop filling up the pipeline with MORE people who have been sent to jail for drugs. sending them to jail is not a solution.

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

@P1GunterI wonder, if US finally legalizes weed, would people sent away for weed be able to get a retroactive pass? Expunge records for weed offenses and make these people citizens again? 

Imagine the exploding heads on the right if all those folks could vote Democrat.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul

what is the logic behind saying that an employer wants to hire an undocumented worker?

the problem isn't that there are too many workers competing for the same job, as Jim points out the problem is the preconceptions and stigma the felon carries on their back.

animas
animas

@mavdog Drugs and other minor offenses with mandatory sentencing guidelines,negatively impacting people's lives forever.  (The well off can get expensive legal advice,etc.).  This is also a burden for the taxpayer BTW as the daily cost to maintain a prisoner in the ave US state prison is above $50/day.  We should be able to do better.

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

@Montemalone

No, they won't get a retroactive pass.  That would make the law an ex-post facto law, and there's a constitutional prohibition against re-writing history in such a manner.

However, there will always be Republicans looking to buy new votes, so whether weed is legal or not, you can always hire a lawyer to lobby your representative or governor to give you back rights you lost - like voting and owning a firearm. 

The toughest part is trying to convince them that they won't later regret giving you a second chance.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@mavdogNo, many of these itinerant jobs are filled by felons or illegals, this is a huge number of workers in construction, dishwashing and many similar jobs.  These aren't necessarily dead end jobs, as they can prove themselves over time.  I think he makes a very valid point

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@mavdog 

There are over 10,000,000 undocumented workers in this country.

If there were fewer undocumented workers, workers such as those described in the article just might have more opportunities.

And yes, it is a matter of too many workers competing for the same job.  Why do you think that the number of people who have dropped out of the labor force have increased?

fredgarvinmp713
fredgarvinmp713

My brother was pulled over in Williamson County at age 19, and found to have drug paraphernalia in his car. Not the actual drugs, but a crime nonetheless. Spent the night in jail, then was looking at a trial and additional jail time.

Long story short, he was able to avoid any further jail time but now has a conviction on his record. He tested negative for drugs during the multiple court appearances, and thereafter. However, with the conviction on his record he could not get a job--unequivocally turned down by Wal-Mart, Sports Authority, etc. He was able to find work, and did well, but nothing with benefits. He has never been involved in a violent crime, is not a felon, is drug-free and a hard worker, but a whole slew of work is off-limits because he had a set of tweezers and rolling papers in his car at 19.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul @mavdog 


Why do you think Capitalism refers to people as human Resources ??


To be exploited to their highest and best capacity, for the lowest possible cost, just like any other "resource".

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@mavdog@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul 

5M, 10M, nobody really knows, but to dismiss this number of illegal workers as having no effect on the employability of ex-cons is a bit of a stretch.  There are too many documented cases of the effect that illegal aliens have on depressing wages paid.  Most notably, see the cases involving the meat packing industry.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul

to be accurate, there are an est 10M undocumented people in the US, which would be about 5-5.5M workers.

"might have more opportunities"? well, yes, they "might". can't say "might" is completely wrong.

The question you pose, why have so many workers stopped pursuing a traditional job, is a tough one to answer. economists are trying to determine why and they haven't answered the question for sure.

some believe it has to do with age discrimination as so many of the workers who were laid off tended to be older and now firms want younger workers. some believe it has to do with skills. like Jim points out some have blemishes on their record that deter employers.

what is true is there are jobs out in the market that are not filled, from entry level to higher skilled, and the reason the people Jim interviewed don't have a job is unlikely related to there being an undocumented worker taking the opportunity away from them.

fredgarvinmp713
fredgarvinmp713

On my brother's record it just states "conviction: paraphernalia." Not only will employers like Wal-Mart categorically refuse to hire, but even smaller ones wouldn't consider him. I called one employer to inquire, and they told me they those two words were reason enough; unfortunately the word sounds like "pedophilia" or something more nefarious than tweezers and rolling papers.

fredgarvinmp713
fredgarvinmp713

However, as Jim Shutze points out, employers may have a good reason to not employ felons, for example. I think the solution is not so much to prohibit employers from discriminating against ex-cons, as it is to stop producing ex-cons in the first place.

russell.allison1
russell.allison1

@fredgarvinmp713 I don't think it will be too much longer before the EEOC expands its current guidelines for consideration of criminal history.  It is currently worded so as to specifically address disparate impact to minorities, but I would love to see if cover all applicants. 

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@fredgarvinmp713I got popped my senior year of college with a half ounce of weed.  I got deferred adjudication and had no conviction.  Regardless, on my driving record for ten years, in all caps it read "DRUG ARREST"


animas
animas

@fredgarvinmp713  Thank you for showing us that this problem is far more common than people think!

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