Black Men Faring Poorly Even in Booming Economy
Black men are falling even further behind, faring much worse than others with comparable education, at a time when black women and other minorities are making record gains.
Black men in the United States face a far more dire situation than is portrayed by common employment and education statistics, a flurry of new scholarly studies warn, and it has worsened in recent years even as an economic boom and a welfare overhaul have brought gains to black women and other groups. Focusing more closely than ever on the life patterns of young black men, the new studies, by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions, show that the huge pool of poorly educated black men are becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society, and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men. Especially in the country’s inner cities, the studies show, finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks even as urban crime rates have declined.
Although the problems afflicting poor black men have been known for decades, the new data paint a more extensive and sobering picture of the challenges they face. “There’s something very different happening with young black men, and it’s something we can no longer ignore,” said Ronald B. Mincy, professor of social work at Columbia University and editor of “Black Males Left Behind” (Urban Institute Press, 2006). “Over the last two decades, the economy did great,” Mr. Mincy said, “and low-skilled women, helped by public policy, latched onto it. But young black men were falling farther back.”
Many of the new studies go beyond the traditional approaches to looking at the plight of black men, especially when it comes to determining the scope of joblessness. For example, official unemployment rates can be misleading because they do not include those not seeking work or incarcerated. “If you look at the numbers, the 1990’s was a bad decade for young black men, even though it had the best labor market in 30 years,” said Harry J. Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and co-author, with Peter Edelman and Paul Offner, of “Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men” (Urban Institute Press, 2006).
In response to the worsening situation for young black men, a growing number of programs are placing as much importance on teaching life skills — like parenting, conflict resolution and character building — as they are on teaching job skills.
There is no obvious societal fix for this problem. Programs that target the vestiges of racial segregation, now half a century in the past, will have little impact if the problem is cultural. These studies seem to point in that direction:
Joseph T. Jones, director of the fatherhood and work skills center here, puts the breakdown of families at the core. “Many of these men grew up fatherless, and they never had good role models,” said Mr. Jones, who overcame addiction and prison time. “No one around them knows how to navigate the mainstream society.”
What, exactly, can we do about this is a society is unclear. Institutionalized child care brings up visions of Charles Dickens and, in reality, is only slightly better than that. And, surely, there is no feasible way to legislate black men raising their sons.