A year ago tomorrow, a 29-year-old black man was shot dead at a Crown Heights barbecue. Newspaper stories billed him as a “father of four,” but he only worked part-time on and off. Nevertheless, interviews with his family revealed something that would flabbergast a poor black person of, say, 1940 brought into our times.Though recalled as a doting father to his children (by three mothers), the fact that he did not spend 40 hours a week providing for their food, clothing and shelter was, at best, a minor issue. In his community, his semi-employment (he was an “aspiring rapper”) was considered normal.
This man was an example of a problem plaguing struggling black communities today: black men in their 20s and 30s who live disconnected from regular work. “Corner men,” they used to call them back in the day — but they were a marginal phenomenon, “characters.” Snapshot statistic: in Indianapolis in 1960, 93% of black men were employed. Today, however, the “corner man” is so common that there is no longer a special term for him.
He is likely a high-school dropout. These days more than half of inner-city black men make that choice, and in 2004, three out of four of these diploma-less men were not working. It is hardly a surprise that this life makes it easy to drift into criminality. Three in five black men without diplomas end up doing time, as do 30% of the ones with only high school diplomas. The man killed in Brooklyn, for instance, had a record.
“It’s the economy, stupid” doesn’t help us here. This disconnect from work became more widespread during the 1990s when, as Georgetown economist Harry Holzer notes, the labor market was the best it had been in 30 years. A certain op-ed page orthodoxy teaches us that the problem is that low-skill manufacturing jobs left cities for the suburbs and beyond.Time and again, studies by social scientists such as Holzer and James H. Johnson show that this can only explain, at best, about a third of the unemployment problem among black men.
Is the other two-thirds of the problem racism? Employers readily admit that they have found inner-city black men to be risky hires. But then, a vast amount of research — again, even by leftleaning and/or black researchers — shows that they very often are risky hires. Alford Young, a black sociologist concerned with this issue, observes from extensively interviewing black men at risk that “some men eventually find jobs but abandon them (if not be dismissed) as soon as problems or tensions arise.” Young is one of many documenting the same: the quick temper is necessary on mean streets, but out of place behind a cash register.
The problem facing us, then, is the kind that makes many uncomfortable: a cultural one. For example, while three in four black men without diplomas are unemployed, only one in five Latino ones are.The norm in black communities has become different than the one in Latino ones, and different even from the black community norm of 40 years ago. The question is how to change this.
To simply recount once again that manufacturing plants moved away 20 years ago demonstrates a lack of concern, since the plants aren’t coming back. Rather, we must figure out how to connect unskilled inner city men to other work, for example as sound technicians, building inspectors, and repairmen, that does not require a B.A.
It is time to take on the other half of the task accomplished by welfare reform 10 years ago.In the late 1960s, welfare was transformed into an open-ended child care stipend. This was one part riot insurance and one part misguided societal engineering, but it had a grievous impact on black America, distracting struggling but stable communities into accepting dependency as ordinary. Since 1996, legions of the black women damaged by this have been brought into the work force. Their lives are far from perfect, but ever fewer black children live in poverty.
Now the men stand out in sharper relief. They, too, are the product of neighborhoods where for 30 long years, working for a living was optional and two-parent families were exotic.
Since 1998, federal Youth Opportunity grants have created community centers nationwide, placing low-skilled men into jobs and keeping them there. More than 50,000 have been served so far. This program’s record, like that of scattered similar organizations funded by corporate donors, is promising. But these grants have so far remained a diffuse, below-the-radar-screen affair known largely to wonks and activists. They should be bolstered and refashioned into a coordinated, high-profile national program. Other key concerns will be assisting ex-offenders in entering the work world, the role of faithbased organizations, and creating incentives with the Earned Income Tax Credit.
This, then, is a policy issue. Fortunately, it is beginning to be recognized as one.The issue has recently received prominent coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is holding a conference called Moving Men into the Mainstream. On Wednesday, three panels of experts on poverty, education and criminal justice will discuss strategies to bring this endangered segment of the black male community into productive lives and stable families.
The most tragic aspect of the murder of the Crown Heights man a year ago was its ordinariness. Not only his semi-employment, but his criminal record and his murder itself were par for the urban-black-male course. The story was on back pages of New York newspapers for a day or three, and then quickly forgotten, since such lives and such deaths are routine in so many neighborhoods. This norm is not what the Civil Rights revolution was for.
Welfare reform was the best thing for black America since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because it changed the dependency that had become routine. Only by putting resources into the male half of the equation can we finish the job.
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