Help black males escape tangled web

September 26, 2002|By Robert C. Embry Jr.

THE EMPLOYMENT rate among young black males is bad across America, but in Baltimore it's worse. Nationally, the rate over 20 years has fallen from 62 percent to 52 percent -- a 16 percent drop. In Baltimore, the rate has fallen from 60 percent to 38 percent -- a 37 percent plunge.

These national statistics for out-of-school black males ages 16 to 24 who have no more than a high school diploma were reported by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, in April. The Baltimore findings were provided to the Abell Foundation by a research assistant to the author of the report, Harry Holzer.

The study found that national labor market conditions and demographic trends alone do not explain the decline in employment.

The explanation, the report speculates, lies in the dramatic growth in arrest rates and court orders dealing with child support. These seemingly disconnected trends may account for Baltimore City's 37 percent decline in employment for young black males.

Consider: While Baltimore City police report that the crime rate is down, the city's jail officials predict that the city is headed toward a record-breaking 100,000 arrests this year, according to Commissioner LaMont W. Flanagan of the state's Division of Pretrial Detention and Services. Arrests lead to jail or prison time and, eventually, back to the streets of Baltimore.

According to the Maryland Division of Correction, three-fourths of Maryland's inmates are younger than 41, and nearly 80 percent are African-American. More than 9,000 of these prisoners are released into the Baltimore City community each year.

Many of these men have no place to live, no money, no marketable skills and an inadequate education; their criminal records make it difficult for them to find adequate housing and jobs.

According to the Maryland Child Support Enforcement Administration, Baltimore City has 45,611 non-custodial fathers who have been ordered to pay child support. Given that Baltimore's population is 65 percent African-American, it is safe to assume that the majority of these fathers are black.

A study published by the Abell Foundation in 2000 found that 84 percent of the fathers who owed child support in Baltimore in 1999 had accumulated delinquent payments averaging about $9,100 each. All of the fathers together owed more than $400 million.

According to the child support agency, of those who owe back payments in Baltimore City, 70 percent earn less than $20,000 a year.

It would seem that Maryland's child support system is overburdening low-income non-custodial parents with debt that they cannot possibly pay.

This inability to pay can lead to resistance to seek employment because, under state law, more than 50 percent of wages can be withheld from paychecks to pay child support. The frustration can also drive many into the underground drug economy as a means of providing for their children.

Exacerbating matters, the enforcement agency also reports that more than 14,000 Baltimore City driver's licenses have been suspended since 1996 for failure to pay child support.

Losing a driver's license cannot help a non-custodial father get a job or keep one and only contributes to his inability to provide financial support to his children.

Clearly, the city and the state must make a concerted effort to address this complex of related problems bedeviling young black males, such as overwhelming child support payments and being released from prison without support, which is driving down the employment rate and driving up the crime rate among them.

The government's focus in the area of child support is on collection and punishment, a policy that is proving to be devastating to poor fathers, young and old.

More attention must be paid to released prisoners, if for no other reason than to work toward reducing the possibility of their committing additional crimes.

The Justice Department recently reported that two of every three people who are released from prison nationally are re-arrested for serious crimes within three years. This population must be connected to jobs, drug treatment and housing, particularly housing in a setting where positive conduct is encouraged and reinforced.

The practice of enforcing child support and releasing ex-offenders into the community without support serves neither young black males nor Baltimore well.

It is imperative that we move these issues higher on the community agenda, and quickly. Otherwise, the employment rate of Baltimore's young black males will continue to fall, with the region suffering increasingly disastrous consequences.

Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation.

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