A majority of African American men between the ages of 18 and 34 are facing a deepening social and economic crisis. Social scientists have known for years that many young black men in America are in trouble, without higher education, without jobs, and without hope. Less well understood is just how poorly these young men are faring, and the precise reasons for their worsening difficulties.
Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow at the Urban Institute, has co-authored a report called "Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men" which makes the scope of the crisis clear. He says, "We're mostly talking about that group of young men at the bottom of the education spectrum, very large numbers of whom grow up in pretty racially segregated and low income neighborhoods, and usually attend relatively segregated and low income schools." He adds that many of those youth don't get high school diplomas, "and even when they do, many don't have the skills that employers expect to go along with that."
According to some estimates, up to 75 percent of America's black inner city males with only a high school education or less are jobless, meaning they are looking for work, or have given up the search. Upheavals in the American economy partly explain it.
During much of the last century, many urban blacks - even those without skills - could earn a decent living in the manufacturing sector. Now, the technology sector offers the most job opportunities. But without technical training or college education, many young blacks are shut out.
"If you are in that situation and the wages you face are very low, your incentives to ever attach to the labor market are much weaker than they used to be," Holzer says. "So a lot of these men don't ever attach themselves." Most experts agree that these young people can learn at an early age to have very low expectations for their future success, and then the expectations become a reality."
The link between joblessness, poverty and low self-esteem is well-known. Many see a life of crime a way out.
Rick Chisholm, 34, of the Bronx, New York, is typical. He began selling crack cocaine during the 1980s, when he was 14 years old, and has now spent nearly half of his life in jail. He now works at the Center for Employment Opportunities, a large non-profit agency in New York City that offers job and life skills training to ex-convicts. Mr. Chisholm recalls why he was drawn to "the life" as it is sometimes called.
"One thing that really ensnares a young man is the fact that, as a drug dealer, you are your own boss. You do whatever you want to do. And then when you get to carry a gun, you can become someone else's boss!"
Preying on one's customers also becomes a possibility. "Women would be quick to give up their body and do sexual favors," Chisholm says, "and that's attractive for a young man."
During the late 1980s, as use of crack cocaine peaked in the African American community, incidents of out-of-wedlock births also soared. It was not uncommon for a young man to father four or five children by as many women.
At the same time, Congress passed tough new laws that required long prison terms for certain drug-related crimes. That began a trend of increasing incarceration that continues today.
According to The New York Times, "In 1994, 16 percent of black men in their 20s who did not attend college were in jail or in prison. By 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid 30s, six in ten black men who had dropped out of school were in prison."
This trend has resulted in a steep rise in single-parent homes where no father is present to nurture and guide the sons. Today 70 percent of black children are born to single parent households.
"What we need to do to effect change is, first, to make sure that young black men are growing up with both their mothers and fathers," says Ron Mincy, a professor of social welfare policy at Columbia University, and the author of a report called Black Males Left Behind. "Bottom line: at two in the morning, when someone calls home and says 'Billy's just gotten arrested,' that person's mother or father has got to be there!"
The combined strain of finding work as an ex-convict and helping to support his young daughter is clearly visible on the face of Earl Pierce, 21. He has been entangled with the criminal justice system since he was 13, and has just been released.
"It's just hard for people out here," he says with a sigh. "You come home and you try to do the right thing and people [are] telling you 'you ain't gonna be nothing.' And sometimes people just want to give up on themselves and resort back to the old ways. And I don't want to go back to jail."
Suggestions for how to improve the prospects for young black men in America include marriage education, income supplements for impoverished fathers who pay child support, rigorous academic supervision beginning in primary school, and job training. Professor Mincy, a black man, offers this advice to the younger generation:
"Ultimately, your ability to do well depends on you. And that's the tough truth. If you sort yourself out, you will be able to avail yourself of the assistance of government programs, of individual good people, if you comport yourself to take advantage of that. If you don't, you're gone and you will just be 'missing.'"