It's time to bring back the children

Recently, the Press and Fun Bulletin, the local Gannet newspaper in my hometown of Johnson City, NY, released an interview* with County Executive Barbara Fiala discussing her work since being elected last year. Among the questions about funding problems and pollution in Endicott, one of the questions was what had she done to bring young people into the community. Her response was that she had established a program with Binghamton University to have internships with the County for students that would hopefully lead to jobs.
I was disgusted that both the Press and the County Executive treated this problem so lightly. The Press asked only one question on the topic and then let her go with a lame answer. Executive Fiala has such a low opinion of our youth that she made only a feeble token effort to keep them around, and then the way she did it was to develop a program that mainly affects students at a University populated by a vast majority of out-of-towners. If successful, her program would draw a tiny number of Long Island kids away from their parents to replace our kids that have to move to North Carolina to find decent work. It would be tragic if this was an isolated incident in my county, but this travesty is repeated over and over again in our communities.

Yet, the greatest threat to the survival of our communities is this phenomenon of youth flight, better known as the brain drain. This is a blight that we are not alone in; it affects places as varies as Thailand and Africa, with the best and brightest leaving these regions for better opportunities abroad. In our case, our young people are leaving for NYC, North Carolina, Virginia and California. In other words, largely to the Sun Belt.
The problems caused by this phenomenon are multifaceted. The most obvious to most of us is the effect it has on our families. Family strength and unity allows for support in difficult times: help for the young in getting off of their feet, help for the elderly when they can no longer take care of themselves and help for everyone when they are ill, exhausted, depressed or suffering. However, the family is weakened when it is scattered across the nation. Grandparents, uncles and aunts can no longer aid in the eduction of youth and the transfer of knowledge from the elderly to the young is cut off. In disasters, but also in joy, the family is missing; part of us is missing. We have all experienced this heartache and I need not elaborate it more, I just want to point out that when our families are weakened across the board, so is our community's ability to widthstand economic and social problems (such as those currently besetting the
Rust Belt).

The next problem that is caused by the Brain Drain is the greying of our populace. One of the only sectors of our economy to grow lately has been health care. This is largely because the elderly need more care than the young. But what happens when your entire community is populated by the elderly? Who will take care of them? Who will fight the fires, clean the streets, build and maintain the buildings? What will happen when, inevitably, they die? When pensions and 401K plans are the support of your economy, what happens when to the health care and retail jobs that they support when they dissappear? When all of the homes populated by the elderly are emptied, who will buy them or will they fall into decay?

The final problem is that when the best and the brightest of your community is drawn away, with it goes your creativity, your energy and your hope. What is left are those who are too poor or too socially hampered in other ways to escape. You are left with a community of elderly folks living off their pensions and poor people who work in retail jobs and health care jobs supporting those elderly folks. This is a recipie for disaster.
So the question that remains is: what do we do to reverse this trend? Many of our young people want to return home, they want to work to improve their communities. The attraction of family, friends and a familiar setting is a siren call in the backs of many of our minds. I know I have heard it. In order to be able to give a practical answer to this gut reaction we must attack the problem on two fronts: youth culture and work possibilities.
One of the largest reasons why young people leave Upstate cities and towns is that there is "nothing to do." Especially as our population greys, local leaders seek to capture votes by building senior centers; the idea of courting young (18-28) voters is alien to their mindset. After all, many of these "leaders" have been serving for decades and are old themselves. However, if there is nothing in the community to entertain young people, and especially if the community is hostile to attempts to create those entertainments, the young people will leave. This is true, even if there are jobs available. Those jobs will instead be filled by middle aged poor (the fact that they also need jobs I will address momentarily).

Youth culture is difficult for those who are not youth to manufacture. However, at the same time, they may go great lengths to hinder it. It is inevitable in our quickly changing society that the music, clothing and slang of our youth will be different from, and often in direct rebellion against, the norms of their parents. For our communities to build a thriving youth culture, what leaders and community members must do is simply get out of the way. Young people need places to dance, to drink, to argue, to create art and to do stupid things. If you don't want skateboarders in the park, build a skate park. Key to this process is letting youths make their own paths and providing them with the resources to achieve it.

Just as vital to reversing the Brain Drain are work opportunities. This means more than McDonalds or the local telemarketing center. The AIG call center in Vestal, NY was proclaimed "leaders" from local politicians all the way up to the Governor, to be the answer to unemployment in my home area. However, these jobs are minimum wage positions calling people about their bills. From friends who worked there, I have heard it described as "soul sucking," "horrible," "boring as all hell" and other colorful terms. This is not the way to build community, these are soulless positions that kill hope and optimism.

Instead, the community must invest in the ideas of the young people. Local governments and credit unions should work together to create microloans/grants to help in the establishment of new businesses by young people. The boards for the allocation of these funds should be run by young people who understand the importance of their work, not by cyncial and pessimistic "adults."

When young people, our brothers and sisters, cousins, children and friends, realize that back at home, back in Upstate New York, there is an attempt to bring them back, they will return. When they know that here they can persue their dreams, they can find the entertainments that they enjoy and they can be safe with the support of the family and friends, they will inevitably return. With the return of each young person, the youth community will grow. It will become easier for entertainment options to become flourish and new work opportunities to grow. For our communities to survive, this is not an option, but a necessity.

Posted by Jesse

*For the life of me, I can't seem to find this interview online, so I'm afraid that you, loyal reader, will have to take my word on it.


Todd said...

Kudos on the good post. The idea of "youth flight" needs some serious discussion from leaders and not mere token efforts. To pick out one great point you made: call centers and other menial jobs are not going to keep the best and brightest from leaving. I love my parents dearly and would do anything to live near them, but if it's a choice between a lawyer in Jamestown or $6 an hour in Watertown...I'll call them a lot.

YoMamma said...

The starting wage at AIG for entry level positions is close to $12/hr and their is a 10% differential for night shifters. The kids they are employing are making more than most of the starting salaries for professional positions in the Binghamton area.