Young black men at risk

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Young black men, according to several studies, are in a bad way - with joblessness and incarceration at alarming highs, and a street culture of swagger reinforcing these conditions as "normal." As a neglected group, they now need America's focused attention.

It's disheartening to learn that:

• In 2004, half of African-American men in their 20s were without work. Among high school dropouts, it was 72 percent. The dropout classification is relevant, because in inner cities more than half of all black men do not finish high school.

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• By their late 20s, more African-American male dropouts are behind bars than behind a desk or otherwise legally earning a paycheck. By their mid-30s, 6 in 10 black men who had quit high school had done time in prison - a record that compounds the challenge of finding work.

These problems aren't new, but they've grown worse - despite a long economic expansion in the 1990s, and contrary to gains by African-American women, according to studies from several US universities and other institutions that were compiled and reported on last month by The New York Times.

The worrisome trends continue debate within the black community as to whether the cause of this human tragedy is cultural or structural - a problem that requires a change in attitude or a change in resources.

Those on the cultural side argue that what's needed is a shift toward greater responsibility within the African-American community. The structural advocates see other significant factors at work - overly harsh sentencing, the loss of blue-collar jobs, poor schools, and remaining forms of racism.

This dichotomy of the same problem is not helpful. It pits solutions against one another, when they're by no means mutually exclusive.

After years working on these issues, government, as well as the private sector, knows what works. Philadelphia, for instance, knows that its Don't Fall Down in the Hood effort to help teenage boys who broke gun laws or drug laws is making a difference. The same is true for Baltimore and its Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, a nonprofit that helps build character and work skills. The federal government's decades-old Jobs Corps and newer Youth Opportunity centers are also proven.

But from the president on down to the local pastor, these programs need sustained attention and resources. Columbia professor Ronald Mincy, editor of "Black Males Left Behind," points out that $50 billion has been spent to move poor women off welfare and into jobs. He has a point when he argues that a similar push must be made with black males.

The force behind government-driven welfare reform in 1996, however, was personal responsibility - a neat overlap with comedian Bill Cosby's blunt calls for culture change among African-Americans. With 70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock, families are adrift and lack parenting skills. And street culture glorifies drug money, status fashion, violence, and sexual conquest.

Young black males are like anyone else. They want fulfillment and success. A major effort must now be made on all fronts so that success translates into a contribution to society instead of a drain on it.

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