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

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.