Green Economy or Green Divide?

Workers pin hopes on a new economy

Workers stand near a bioswale, a form of “green” environmental construction meant to catch polluted rain water outside of Rigler Elementary School in northeast Portland. The men are in a program offered by Verde, a non-profit that offers green landscape training to traditionally marginalized groups.

Jake Thomas

The Portland Observer

On a hot muggy day outside of Rigler Elementary School in northeast Portland the leather boots and jeans of four Hispanic immigrants pick up dust as they work to fill a layered pit with carefully placed rocks and gravel.
The men are constructing a bioswale, a landscape element that filters pollution from runoff water. They are participants in a landscape training program sponsored by Verde, a non-profit that helps low-income people develop skills that will help them land jobs in the coming “green economy,” or even start their own business.
Green jobs have been have been hailed as a way to revitalize the economy while protecting the natural world. Some are pinning their hopes that these jobs will be a vehicle of social mobility for traditionally disadvantaged groups. But as the green tide washes over the country there are still obstacles to ensure that it lifts up previously marginalized people.

It’s not clear what the potential green jobs might hold, in part, because there is no common definition of what a green job entails. But many agree that the work often includes jobs to create renewable energy, or traditional blue collar jobs that have an eco-friendly element.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, generation of renewable energy is slated to rise from 418 billion kilowatt hours to 730 billion by 2030, which will certainly create some green jobs.

According to the Urban Institute, a third of all families with children are in poverty, and the median wage for black men was $12.48 an hour in 2005 compared to $17.48 for whites. Some are hoping that green jobs will be a boon to communities of color and the disadvantaged.
The Obama Administration and Congress are hopeful that a green economy will revitalize the country’s battered middle class and will provide greater social mobility for the poor. This year’s stimulus package included millions of dollars in tax credits to spur green technology, and the Obama Administration has launched initiatives to connect residents of HUD housing with training for green jobs, although details have yet to be spelled out.

The state of Oregon is also on board. It has mandated that 25 percent of all energy come from renewable energy by 2025, and offers tax credits to encourage businesses, ranging from homebuilding to hybrid vehicles, to become more eco-friendly. Local leaders are also in the process of wooing clean energy companies to join the ranks of existing companies, like the Hillsboro-based Solar World.
While these jobs are being created there are a number of organizations, local and national, that want to make sure that disadvantaged groups will be prepared to hitch their wagons to the green gravy train.
During an April visit to Portland, Marc Morial, the president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League expressed concern to reporters that the country would have “green apartheid” or a “green divide” if minorities didn’t have requisite training for these jobs.
He stated that the Urban League was making it a priority to prevent this by providing such training, and proudly mentioned that the league had already trained 18,000 people for weatherization work and other green jobs.
The Irvington Covenant Community Development Corporation recently entered into a partnership with the United Way and Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. to develop a pre-training program aimed at putting marginalized people on the path to get good jobs doing things like installing wind turbines and solar panels and retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient.
“What we’re trying to accomplish with training is to level the playing field,” said Pat Daniels, the director of the covenant’s community growth division.

But just because the economy is developing a green tint doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to be hoisted out of poverty in droves.

Mary King, a labor economist at Portland State University, is quick to point out that green jobs mean little if workers don’t have bargaining power and aren’t paid a family wage.

“The question certainly becomes ‘growth for whom?’” said Alan Hipolito, the executive director of Verde, who argues that it means little to have a robust green economy that doesn’t reach everyone.

“Everyone’s trying to pay minimum wage,” said Daniels, who also anticipates this problem.

It’s true that not all green jobs pay a decent wage. A report by the Urban Institute, points out that some green jobs like weatherization are relatively low paying.
Hipolito, whose groups trains workers primarily in green landscaping and nursery, said he’s confident that the green training will help workers find jobs or start their own businesses, but can’t guarantee that they’ll immediately find lucrative work.

Some landscaping jobs pay a starting wage as low as $8 an hour and go up to $18, said Hipolito.

Barbara Byrd, a senior instructor at the University of Oregon’s Labor, Education and Research Center and secretary-treasurer for the Oregon AFL-CIO, points out that low income people often have a litany of personal problems that prevent them from any employment. They may have bad credit, or need help paying for child care, she said.

“It’s hard for them to even reach that first rung of the ladder,” she said.

Karin Martinson, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said that there are better-paying high end green jobs, often found in engineering and architecture that are more difficult for low-income workers to break into. She added that trainers can overcome this problem by working closely with employers to match skills with job demand.

But this isn’t deterring Samuel Martinez, a 49-year-old immigrant from Vera Cruz, Mexico. Wearing a plaid work shirt, he said in Spanish that he likes doing something for the environment, and it already pays better than the service industry jobs he used to work.

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About jakethomasreports

Jake Thomas is the web editor and news reporter at the Portland Observer. His freelance work has been published in In These Times, Utne Magazine, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury, and others.
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