Black progress - but . . .

A new study of the economic status of black Americans provides a picture that is at once encouraging and challenging. Encouraging because it gives evidence that struggles of the past two decades have yielded positive results for many black Americans. And challenging because it points to areas in which far more must be done. This is itself a step forward for it is necessary to know the specific dimension of problems before they can be addressed.

The study, by the private Center for the Study of Social Policy, finds that since 1960: black families in which both husband and wife work have made major economic gains compared to white families; blacks have made substantial educational gains, and the number of blacks in professional and administrative positions has increased substantially.

But it also concludes that approximately half of all black men are unemployed; that single women head nearly half of all black families with children under 18, and that this is the fastest growing category of black families - and the poorest.

To help meet these needs government at all levels, and society at large, must support and strengthen the black family, and see that the education of black children equips them to compete for jobs in today's and tomorrow's high-tech society. Necessary, too, is retraining of adult males to permit them to obtain jobs.

Too often government policy has had the effect of weakening the black family, rather than strengthening it. One example: in many states welfare benefits - from monthly stipends to day-care subsidies - are provided only when there is no father in the home. This for years has given many unemployed men a cruel choice: remain in the home, thus keeping the family strong but in dire economic straits - or leave it, thus enabling welfare benefits to be provided but weakening the family at major cost to all. For years this policy has been decried, but in many areas it persists; it is past time for change.

Nowhere is the dramatic need to improve education more evident than in the average inner city school. Nationally, the study relates that blacks have nearly caught up with whites in years of schooling, and that the rate of black illiteracy has plummeted. Yet many young blacks are unable to find employment as their schools have not prepared them intellectually for the kinds of positions increasingly dominant in American society, as it continues its shift to jobs that mentally challenge the job holders.

It is imperative that all inner city schools - and those in the suburbs - return to education that rigorously and intellectually challenges students, requires them to demonstrate proficiency in order to advance, insists they know more math and science, and demands they demonstrate the ability to communicate clearly in writing. These ''tools'' increasingly are necessary for graduates to obtain jobs; it is imperative that America's schools provide them to all students.

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