How can we reinforce the thin barrier that employment creates between poverty and prosperity in Birmingham? This was the big question at Thursday’s “Wicked Problem” discussion at the Edge of Chaos Center in UAB’s Lister Hill library.
Aside from addressing solutions to Birmingham’s unemployment levels — 8.3 percent, according to the Department of Labor — many at the meeting pointed out that the city needs to redefine what it means to be employed.
Ron Sparks, who heads up the state’s Rural Development Agency, said that “350 jobs in the Black Belt is like 1,000 jobs in Birmingham. That’s what you have to look at. What’s the geographical location and what’s the benefit?”
In a time when the definition of employment is in flux, one panelist noted, are people working harder for less money?
Sparks said that getting young people ready for the workforce after high school is a way to generate a more competitive workforce and drive wages in the right direction. That’s why he is working on a grant, called Gear Up, to prepare students for life after school. “We want to start with sixth and seventh grade students and we work with them all the way through high school on financial literacy character building. What it costs to live in Alabama to help them understand what’s available to them and what the workforce really looks like,” Sparks said.
In Pickens County, Sparks said, a new federal prison recently opened. Eighty percent of their employees didn’t come from Pickens County because they didn’t have a well-developed work force.
But what if not everyone wants to work on an assembly line or in a prison? Would it be more beneficial for Birmingham to focus on bringing in one company — “one big buffalo” — that could employ 10,000 people, or to try and foster 50 smaller companies that each employ 50 people?
Majadi Baruti, who was featured in the latest issue of Weld’s “Poverty in Birmingham” Series, explained that the diversity of Birmingham’s job sector is lacking. Artists, he said, have little to no upward mobility in the Magic City.
“One of the things to look at here is, how engaged is the political stratum here?” Baruti said. “How are the governing bodies of Jefferson County and Birmingham looking at employment and how diverse it is? There is a music business here. There is art. When we look at how jobs are brought to an area we don’t need to forget these.”
Baruti believes that if government took an active role in helping the fledgling music and arts scene in Birmingham, it could not only create jobs, but also empower people who are not meant to work in factories. “They could work on diversifying what jobs are brought to our city. People are always talking about how there are jobs in Birmingham, but really it’s only three, maybe four sectors.”
Once someone is employed with a company, there is also the issue of being underpaid, Baruti said. “Then there are those people who are underpaid, which is probably worse than not having a job at all because you are always pushing at the idea of never having enough — constantly wondering if this rice and beans will feed my four kids. So is the city addressing this issue? The way I see it, no. There is no diversity here,” Baruti said.
Buddy Palmer, president of Create Birmingham, said he was encouraged by the number of construction cranes he saw looming over Birmingham’s skyline as he walked to Thursday’s discussion.
Those cranes, he mentioned, are symbols of progress and opportunity for Birmingham. “Birmingham has a lot of young entrepreneurs going into creative enterprise. They are really creating a lot of energy,” Palmer said.
Palmer mentioned a two-year study recently published by Create Birmingham. The findings indicate that there are about 22,754 total creative jobs in Jefferson County, which equals 4.68 percent of overall jobs. These jobs include graphic design, culinary arts, music, filmmaking and more, depending on who is asked — basically, any job where creativity is welcomed with open arms, Palmer explained.
The community needs to provide leadership training and opportunities for entrepreneurs, he said. “What happens when someone who starts a small business in Birmingham retires? What happens to Highlands Bar and Grill when Frank [Stitt] retires? We need to build sustainability,” Palmer said. “Nothing builds power quite like ownership.”
But what about those living in poverty who don’t have the means to start their own business? “Our numbers indicate that people of color are vastly underemployed in the creative fields,” Sparks said.
Baruti agreed, giving an example of an artist by the name of “Three-Feet” he knew in Five Points South who used to sell art. “The police ran him out of there. It’s like there is nowhere for people who don’t have a lot, to show their art, to get exposure. This needs to change,” Baruti said.
This kind of systemic change must start with the local government, said Dr. Max Michael, dean of UAB’s School of Public Health. “I’m not sure our elected officials understand the complexities that we are facing. We need to educate them. These things are not silos. These problems surrounding poverty are all related.”
In Birmingham, 28.9 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to the United States Census Bureau. This is not simply due to the fact there are no jobs available. Issues surrounding public transportation (or lack thereof), housing and healthcare all contribute to the cycle of poverty in Birmingham, several of the panelists explained.
Baruti, for one, said he has been unable to find steady work in Birmingham since moving here four years ago because of the lack of public transportation. He is not alone.
Gary Fenton, pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, said, “We have to broaden the concept of poverty. Are you in poverty if you are not contributing? We have to make sure we are asking the right questions to our local government if they are to help.”
Beyond educating elected officials on the complexities surrounding poverty, Baruti said that people need to stop looking at politicians as employers, and start treating them like they are the public’s employees. “We need to say, if you don’t fix this, we can find someone else who will,” he said.
Back to the question of whether “one big buffalo” is better than 50 smaller companies, Palmer said it doesn’t matter as long as people can find work and begin to battle back against the growing poverty level. “We have the talent here. We cannot forget this is about fighting the poverty level. We have to move that needle,” he said. “We have the capabilities and we can put all of our collective attention to move that needle in the right direction.”
In order to move the needle, whether it’s the “one big buffalo” or growing the creative job sector in Birmingham, Palmer said, “There is still a lot of work to be done.”