Creating Opportunity for At-Risk Youth

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Talking with a co-worker from Uganda, I had a little thought.

What if all these taxes and regulations on business are actually discouraging youth who are poor or under-educated from starting a business or getting a job when they otherwise would?

My co-worker pointed out that in Uganda, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from or even how much money you have in your pocket, you can always start some type of business on the streets. There’s no need for registration, insurance, taxes, etc… Just start selling stuff people want.

When you cross the border from Kenya to Uganda, there are a bunch of people more than willing to trade cash for cash at reasonable exchange rates. These aren’t bankers, these are poor people trying to make a living by doing something useful with their lives. What is amazing is that these kids are actually better able to adapt to changing market conditions than banks or other large institutions could. Their asking price is far more accurate than anything quoted in any paper or website, because they see with their own two eyes and touch with their own fingers every bit of money that is exchanged.

In our American cities, there are a million regulations and a thousand reasons why you can’t just start selling stuff to people. Sure, these regulations are put in place for a good reason, but together, it is a thousand paper cuts.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a poor black kid living in absolute poverty. Your dad and mom have never been able to provide well for you for whatever reason. Let’s imagine it’s the worst possible scenario—your dad doesn’t exist in your life and your mom is too boozed up or drugged out to care what you do with your life. Forget the reason why life is this way for a moment. Let’s instead focus on what this poor kid is going to do.

This kid needs money. He needs food. He needs a good place to stay. He isn’t going to get that by begging.

Unfortunately, he can’t get a job. Who would hire him? He has never been taught how to work or how to behave in a way that would inspire someone to hire him. He has no education. He only has his eyes, ears, brain and hands. Besides, with the economy down, business people aren’t rushing out to find new employees. Part of this is due to the economic climate, but most of it is due to taxes and regulations and insurance. It simply makes no business sense to bring in new employees, let alone street kids.

In other countries, this kid could turn to starting his own business. At the very least, he can start hawking stuff on the street, or shine shoes, or sell newspapers or do any number of things. This is because these countries have little or no regulations. Even if the regulations existed, no one is going to enforce them.

But the culture in America has changed dramatically from the 1920s. The kid can’t sell apples or hot dogs from the street corners where people are walking or waiting for buses. He can’t walk around with newspapers or magazines and sell them to cars at stop lights.

You may be thinking that it doesn’t matter anyway, since the kid can’t get his hands on capital. But let me explain to you why that isn’t so. If the business venture was worthy, that is, if it would make money, anyone would invest in it. If I sold apples or hot dogs or newspapers or magazines, I would gladly hand a bunch to a street kid on credit. I’d tell him how to sell it and where he can try going. In a sense, I could start a gang of these kids roaming the streets trying to make a buck doing something marginally useful.

But that opportunity doesn’t exist. Heck, I’d probably go to jail for encouraging kids to break the law, or paying them too little money.

In short, there are no economic opportunities at all for this poor kid. He has nothing he can do. On the one hand, economic conditions are tough so there’s no reason for employers to go out of their way to hire and train the kid. On the other hand, there’s too many regulations and laws that prevent him from doing anything useful on his own accord.

Except for one area. In every country, in every society, there are groups of people who flip their middle finger at the law and work outside the law. In our country, these are the pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and regular muggers and pickpockets. Because they thumb their nose at the law, a whole new world of economic opportunity awaits them. However, working outside the law means they live without the law to protect them. A pimp who gets robbed won’t ask for the police or law to protect him. Neither will a drug dealer who is given a bad batch of drugs by his supplier.

This is why our street kids are turning to crime, when street kids in Uganda are hawking barbeque sticks at bus stops. This is why our street kids end up in prostitution or muggings while in South Korea, they are setting up shop on the sidewalk.

We have to end regulations in our cities, not because regulations are bad, but because it is hurting the poorest and least educated among us.

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