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 say new studies by poverty experts from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and other major universities and think tanks. The experts have taken a closer look at the condition of those who are the least connected to attentive parenting, neighborhood role models and good schools that most of us take for granted. Among the findings: The percentage of young, jobless black males increased over the past two decades, with only slight improvement during economic peaks.
By including those who were jailed or 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, it jumped 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 up the nation's boom in newly constructed prisons, despite the decade's declines in crime rates. Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley, writing in Black Males Left Behind, found that among black dropouts in their late 20s, more were in prison on a given day (34 percent) in 2000 than working (30 percent).
He and other researchers in that book found contributing factors include employers' preferences for immigrants over native-born workers, especially black males; a lack of available jobs; and welfare reforms that put more undereducated black women than their black male counterparts into the work force.
Even America's increasingly high-tech military is shutting its doors 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.
"Reconnecting" is the key word. It describes an alienation that distinguishes many poorly educated black youths from earlier urban-poor generations. Too many once-thriving black neighborhoods are now less likely than comparable white or Latino neighborhoods to offer jobs, intact families or older men who have jobs.
Gone too are many of the adult role models who were able and willing to plant the visions of hope, discipline, academic achievement and self-reliance in hungry minds.
"We're pumping out boys with no honest alternative," Gary Orfield, an education expert at Harvard and editor of Dropouts in America, 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 of too many youngsters into the criminal world.
What can be done? A lot. And as one conservative reformer, Ron Haskins, a former welfare policy adviser 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, in partnership with the private sector and armies of concerned volunteers.
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 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 building prisons.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.