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Disconnected Black Youth Plight Worsens

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - In an ideal world, the rising tide of economic recovery would lift everyone's boat, as John F. Kennedy used to say. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where the boom that began a decade ago has left one demographic group in particular stuck on the bottom of the economic lake: undereducated black males.

So says a body of new studies by poverty experts from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and other major universities and think tanks. They've taken a closer look at the condition of those who are the least connected to the good schools, attentive parenting and neighborhood role models most of us thankfully take for granted.

Among the new findings, the percentage of young jobless black males climbed over the past two decades, with only slight up-ticks during the economic peaks.

By including those who were jailed or otherwise not actively seeking work, two groups normally left out of federal unemployment statistics, researchers found the real jobless rate for black male high school dropouts in their 20s soared to 65 percent in 2000. Four years later, that portion soared to 72 percent, compared with only 34 percent of white dropouts and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts.

Incarceration rates for poorly educated blacks also climbed to historic highs in the 1990s, filling the nation's boom in newly constructed prisons, despite the decade's declines in crime rates.

Among black dropouts in their late 20s, for example, Steven Raphael, of the University of California, Berkeley, writing in "Black Males Left Behind" (Urban Institute Press, 2006), found more in prison on a given day (34 percent) in 2000 than working (30 percent).

He and other researchers in that book, edited by Ronald B. Mincy, a Columbia University professor of social work, found contributing factors include employers' preferences for immigrants over native-born workers, especially black males, a lack of available jobs in the very areas where most of the unemployed live, and welfare reforms that put more undereducated black women than their black male counterparts into the workforce.

Even America's increasingly high-tech military has shut its doors more than ever before to high school dropouts, Hugh Price, former head of the National Urban League, observes in his introduction to another new book, "Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men" (Urban Institute Press), by Peter Edelman, a former poverty advisor to President Clinton; Harry J. Holtzer, a Georgetown University public policy professor, and the late Senate welfare advisor Paul Offner.

"Reconnecting" is the key word here. It describes an alienation that distinguishes many poorly educated black youths from earlier generations of urban poor. Too many once-thriving black neighborhoods like the one in which I grew up are now less likely than comparable white or Latino neighborhoods to offer jobs, intact families or older men who have jobs. Gone are too many of the adult role models who were able and willing back in my younger days to plant the visions of hope, discipline, academic achievement and self-reliance in our hungry minds.

"We're pumping out boys with no honest alternative," Gary Orfield, an education expert at Harvard and editor of "Dropouts in America" (Harvard Education Press, 2004), said in an interview with the New York Times, "and of course their neighborhoods offer many other alternatives."

Those "other" alternatives include a gangster culture, reinforced by the worst aspects of popular hip-hop culture, that channels the ambitions and organizational ambitions of too many youngsters into the criminal underworld.

What can be done? A lot. And as one conservative reformer, Ron Haskins, a former welfare policy advisor to President Bush, observes in "Black Males Left Behind," you don't have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to believe that government has an important role to play in helping the disadvantaged, often in partnership with the private sector and armies of concerned volunteers. "One reason for maintaining optimism is that so few serious attempts to help poor fathers have been made," Haskins writes.

Unfortunately, as the authors of "Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men" observe, "Young black men are the least popular group in America with politicians." Until the winds of political concern for the poor change for the better, the work of reconnecting disadvantaged youths to "honest alternatives" is left largely to the unsung heroes who donate their time and money to mentoring programs and other local efforts.

As an organizer of one group, the National Organization of Concerned Black Men, founded by five black Philadelphia police officers in the 1970s, told me last year, "Our kids have a lot of critics. What they really need are role models."

True. They also need some national leaders who are as eager to provide "honest alternatives" as they have been to build prisons.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(C) 2006 Chicago Tribune | Distributed By Tribune Media Services

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