WASHINGTON. — Washington. -- I don't get infuriated often, or about many things, but my blood was boiling last weekend when I first read figures about rising teen-age unemployment.
And then I read about our soaring prison population.
You probably read or heard that in April the nation's unemployment rate held steady at 7 per cent. But did the media, or any of our politicians, tell you that unemployment for teen-agers rose to 17 per cent for whites and an outrageous 46.8 per cent for blacks?
It bodes ill for this society when one white teen-ager out of six can't find a job; but calamities await all of us when one black youngster out of two can't find work, even though they need and seek it desperately.
How can our urban newspapers ho-hum away such a devastating fact of life?
Why are no politicians in the White House, or on Capitol Hill, ranting about it?
Why would one of my conservative colleagues say on TV that "three months of summer jobs won't change a damn thing"?
There are tens of thousands of youths in America who count on a summer job to earn the money that will determine whether they go to college, or sink into a dead-end job. That summer job enables many high schoolers to buy some of the clothing that lets them continue their educations in self-respect. Most important of all, even three months of work makes youngsters feel that they are beginning to seize a stake in this society.
And now for the explosive implications of having another army of 375,000 black teen-agers shut out of the workplace, doomed to that world of rage and hostility into which millions of their older brothers and sisters have been shunted for years. What we are doing to these youngsters is criminal, and crime will be the response of many.
You don't have to believe that poverty is an excuse for violent behavior to see the common sense reality that economically desperate young people do stupid things in times of despair.
Such as peddling drugs in dark ghettos where there is no way to earn an honest dollar.
How instructive it ought to be to conservative and liberal alike that just as the Labor Department was announcing these terrible unemployment statistics, the Justice Department was announcing that drug convictions helped to boost the nation's prison population to a record high at the end of 1992.
We had 883,593 inmates in state and federal prisons at that time. In 1992 this country spent more than $20 billion to build new prison facilities and for "the management of inmates."
Yet, this year, with the jail and prison populations still rising, we saw the spectacle of a Senate filibuster blocking approval of a $700 million summer-jobs program that would have helped tens of thousands of youngsters, including many of the 981,000 white teen-agers who couldn't find work in April.
Attorney General Janet Reno said the other day that "the most important problem in America today is violence, and people want those who hurt and maim and kill and brutalize put away and kept away for as long a time as they possibly can be." She expressed worry that we soon won't have enough space to incarcerate all such people.
OK. But we've got to remember that teen-agers are hurt and brutalized when they are denied work, or self-respect, and are told that our lawmakers don't give a damn about them or the cities in which they live. Just building more prisons and locking up more black and Hispanic (30 per cent jobless) youth is not going to stop the violence that plagues America.
People who aren't upset over these latest unemployment figures must wake up to the truth:
They can rant and rave against violent crime and pay and pay for jails and prisons, but they won't find tranquility until they provide economic hope and justice to those approaching or just entering adulthood.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.