Making poor men whole again

January 09, 2000|By Robert C. Embry Jr.

IF BALTIMORE'S leaders are serious about turning the city around, they must address the plight of low-income males, especially African-Americans. Such men are disproportionately affected by negative economic and social forces beginning at the time of their birth.

Some 82 percent of African-American births in this city are to single mothers. A significant number of such women are addicted to drugs. In addition, low-income mothers of all races receive less pre-natal care and are more likely to ingest substances damaging to the unborn child.

After they are born, such children often live in houses with lead paint, in communities where two-thirds of the children have an amount of lead in their blood that negatively affects their ability to learn. Boys are often raised in homes without a positive male presence and attend schools with few, if any, male teachers.

These same children too often live in neighborhoods where working- and middle-class families have largely departed. African-American children are nearly l5 times more likely than white children to live in a poor neighborhood.

A study by the Georgetown Public Policy Initiative shows that a low-income child growing up in a poor neighborhood is significantly more likely to commit a crime than a low-income child growing up in a middle-income community.

When poor children arrive in school, they are behind from the beginning. A University of Kansas study reports that poor children of all races have several million fewer words spoken to them before age 4 than children of professional-class families. Worse, most of the words spoken to poor children are critical of them, often harshly so.

Compare this damaging experience with that of middle-class children, who are six times more likely to be spoken to positively than negatively. The city's African-American children are likely to attend schools that are segregated, racially and economically. Baltimore's schools are 83 percent black, 70 percent poor. Males more than females leave city schools without grade-level reading skills, and are more likely to drop out. The male dropout rate at city neighborhood high schools is more than 70 percent.

Fifty years ago, these young men would have faced the curse of Jim Crow. But their once-racially segregated neighborhoods had their social norms firmly established by black middle-class families, leaving illegal drugs outside mainstream life.

Treatment slots needed

Now guns and drugs are everywhere and many neighborhoods are left with only the poor, who are trapped there by poverty. Baltimore has the highest rate of both heroin and cocaine addiction in the country, but its treatment system is operating in excess of capacity with long waiting lists.

The most effective treatment, according to a recently released federal study -- long-term residential care -- is not available to uninsured addicts. The prevalence of drugs not only leads to addiction but also offers attractive illegal employment to young men: Jobs with no education requirement, no payroll taxes and the employer doesn't care if employees are addicted to drugs or have prison records.

Most of these men have criminal records -- a key stumbling block to gainful employment. Empowerment Zone officials, in their efforts to increase inner-city employment, have found that more than 70 percent of employers surveyed say they will not hire someone with a criminal record -- no matter how long ago the crime occurred or the nature of the crime.

The final blow to the hope of the low-income male is inflicted by America's recent obsession with getting non-custodial fathers to pay child support. This concern is long overdue and legitimate. What is not generally known is how this crusade plays out in the low-income community.

More than 80,000 males in Baltimore have child support orders outstanding. Another 50,000 have support cases pending in court. When the elderly and minors are excluded, more than half the males in Baltimore have child support orders outstanding.

The overwhelming majority of these men are African-American. A legally employed, low-income father must pay more than 30 percent of his before-tax income in child support payments.

The amount of child support payments collected from low-income fathers in Maryland is the fourth highest in the country and twice the national median.

If they are lucky enough to get an $8-an-hour job, after withholding and child support are deducted, there isn't much left to live on. But they have a tempting alternative: If these men sell drugs, they pay neither withholding nor child support. To add to their burden, if they are jailed, their child support obligations continue to accrue. The same is true if they are unemployed; the meter keeps ticking.

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