CONGRESS now is beginning to try to figure out how to solve the nationwide problem of unemployed and undereducated young black males. The new attention comes after two decades in which it concentrated on unmarried young black mothers, culminating in passage last year of a welfare reform law.
In recent years rising ``rates of poverty, school failure, incarceration, and economic dislocation'' have been recorded among young black males, notes Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.
The problem is similar in many Hispanic communities. Poverty experts say that for America's future, as well as for the individual futures of minority youths, it is important to reverse these trends.
If the demographic patterns continue, by early next century public schools in the United States will hold nearly as many minority students - primarily black, Hispanic, and Asian-American - as whites. By the middle of the 21st century, America's work force will consist of more minority-group members than white workers.
Business groups already are expressing concern that American students, especially minority Americans who live in poverty areas, are not receiving the quality of education necessary for the complex jobs of today's work force. Tomorrow's workers, they say, will require even more sophisticated education.
Through a series of hearings, Congressman Miller's committee is laying the groundwork for future congressional action to deal with the range of problems confronting impoverished minority children. One aim is to find out which programs work effectively to help youngsters rise out of poverty, so Congress can consider investing funds in proven approaches.
For the moment, the focus of the Miller committee is on black teenage males. ``The great majority haven't even graduated from high school,'' says Rep. Major Owens (D) of New York. ``Their problems are at the heart of the matter.''
Further, in the past decade a declining number of those who do complete high school are going on to college - and experts say that a college education will be a prerequisite for most well-paying jobs in the years to come.
Opinions differ as to the most important action for government to take now. Representative Owens says ``the first step for public policy is to provide jobs for young people. And that's doable.'' Owens says of today's unemployed young black males: ``Most of them have a choice between zero and the drug trade. They don't have a choice'' of a legitimate job that pays wages sufficient to climb out of poverty.
Part of the problem is the changing nature of the American job. US industry is phasing out many of the unskilled and semiskilled factory jobs which were the traditional bottom rungs on the economic ladder for poorly educated minority men as well as immigrants. Between 1973 and l987, black male dropouts saw their annual earnings, after adjustment for inflation, decline an average of 44 percent, says Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.
The problem goes deeper than availability of jobs, says Donald R. Lewis, director of the Nehemiah Project, an Annandale, Va., program to aid young black males. ``We're dealing with the work-ethic situation as well as the availability of jobs,'' he says. He notes that jobs are available in Washington, D.C., but that many young black males will not take them. ``There is a tremendous need for role models'' to influence youth who have a mind-set to reject the work ethic.
``Employment, training, and the way we view'' young minority members must all be considered together, Dr. Sum says.
But any government program should emphasize education in the elementary grades, says Joan Davis Ratteray, president of the Institute for Independent Education of Washington, D.C. She calls it ``the single most important thing that we should concentrate on.'' She notes that according to current statistics, 74 percent of children in Washington's public schools, which are predominantly black, test ``below the [national] norm in reading or math or both.'' In order to hold a job, she points out, ``young men need to know how to read ... before employment.... We have to concentrate on elementary schools.''