Dr. Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial book "The Bell Curve," puts his finger on our No. 1 problem: the "cognitive elite." These are people who finish college and assume roles as lawyers, lobbyists, professors, journalists, bureaucrats and elected officials. They think they know what's best for society. Let's look at what they've done to poor people.

During my teen years, the mid-'40s to the early '50s, my family lived in a housing project in the poorest section of Philadelphia. My father left, leaving my mom to raise two children. We were poor, but we didn't know it.I kept a job and always had some money. During the winter, my cousin and I would earn money simply by going up to a store proprietor and asking, "Do you want your sidewalk shoveled?" At other times, we'd earn money by going to the Cobbs Creek golf course to caddie.

When worse came to worse, we'd get up at 5 in the morning to meet farm trucks headed for New Jersey and do a day's worth of hot, dirty work.

At 14, I had my first regular after-school and weekend job at U-Need-A-Hat factory delivering packages, sweeping floors and doing other odd tasks. Later on, there was work after school, on weekends and during summers busing tables and washing dishes at Horn & Hardart restaurant. During my high school years, Christmas rush periods found me working at Sears' mail-order house or delivering mail for the U.S. post office.

There's nothing unique in this story. All of my childhood peers who wanted to work had a job. Department of Labor statistics tell the same story. Black youth labor force participation equaled or exceeded that of whites in every census from 1890 to 1950. Because of Murray's "cognitive elite," the story today is quite different. Kids where I lived, and for that matter anywhere else, don't have the opportunities to learn the world of work I had in the '40s and '50s.

Because of liability laws, store owners would be insane to hire a 13-year-old to shovel a sidewalk. Numerous labor laws either prevent youngsters from working in factories or make it costly to hire them. Minimum wage laws mandate that if businesses even hire a 14-year-old, they must pay him more than he's worth. The postal union would go ape seeing a teenager delivering mail over the Christmas holidays and getting "their" overtime money. Plus, today's red tape and tax forms raise the cost of hiring anyone.

The cognitive elite have arrogantly substituted their judgment for that of parents in terms of what's best for youngsters. In the process, they've created laws that cut off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. In place of opportunities, they've substituted phony "programs" and the morally debilitating custodial state. Their message is: "We'll take care of you."

The tiny bit of money kids earn from early work experiences is not nearly as important as other benefits, like learning good work habits, promptness and respect for supervisors.

If there's anything that's going to help them to be employable adults, it's going to be a teen job. But for many, our callous cognitive elite have snuffed out that chance.