The lost generation

March 28, 2006

Nearly 20 years ago, young black men were openly referred to as an endangered species because of falling social indicators and a growing sense that many - undereducated and caught up in the criminal justice system - were dispensable in a knowledge- and technology-based economy. A spate of recent studies shows that the crisis has gotten worse, not better, and that not enough is being done to combat it.

The collection of studies from experts at universities such as Columbia, Georgetown and Harvard and cited in the New York Times last week paints a grim national picture of the plight of young black men. For instance, more than half living in inner cities do not finish high school, a minimal credential to finding decent work these days. In 2004, 72 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were not able to find work, not seeking work or incarcerated - up from 65 percent in 2000. Half of all black men in their 20s did not have jobs in 2004, including high school graduates. Also in 2004, some 21 percent of black male twentysomethings who didn't attend college were incarcerated. By their mid-30s, 60 percent of black men who dropped out of high school had spent time in prison.

Many of the factors that contribute to the decline are present in Baltimore - fragile families, a shortage of mentors and role models, school failure, drugs, crime and parenting too early and often. At least three key areas should be focal points for solutions:

Schools. Baltimore fits the national profile, with a 2005 graduation rate for black males of only 49.5 percent, compared with 66.7 percent for black females. Just as a number of national and local programs have been developed to encourage young women to study math and science, more targeted in-school, after-school and community-based programs are needed to keep black boys focused on specific subject areas and, more broadly, completing high school and going on to college.

Employment. As The Sun's Dan Rodricks has shown so poignantly, many men caught up in Baltimore's drug culture want to extricate themselves, but they lack legitimate jobs. They may need specialized training for computer, construction or service-oriented jobs, and they also may need training in other skills, such as showing up for work on time, managing money and resolving conflicts with co-workers. On a larger scale, as the nation spent billions to push low-skilled women on welfare into jobs, a similar commitment may be needed to keep low-skilled black men legally employed.

Parenting skills. Young men who become fathers often have no role model to follow, having been abandoned or neglected by their own dads. More responsible male adults need to be paired with young black men, showing them how to be better fathers to their children and also helping them engage in healthier and more respectful relationships with their children's mothers.

Reversing the declining fortunes of young black men requires enormous personal and political will, but it must be seen as a local and national imperative.

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