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Brother, Can You Spare a Job?

Trying To Get Past the Usual Liberal Guilt Of Dealing With the Limited Opportunities Of Young Black Men

Daniel Krall

By Michael Corbin | Posted 5/17/2006

Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men; Black Males Left Behind

By Peter Edelman, Harry J. Holzer, and Paul Offner, foreword by Hugh Price; Edited by Ronald B. Mincy

Urban Institute Press, paperback

The Sun’s Dan Rodricks says he began his series of cri de coeur “Dear Drug Dealer” columns last June from a sense of psychic fatigue. After 26 years, he explains, he simply got tired of writing about Baltimore as abattoir for African-American men. He just wanted to do something. You can admire the earnest naiveté and pathos of both the stories of men struggling to survive as well as the reality-TV quality to Rodricks salving his own conscience.

Yet in Rodricks’ emotive response to the plight of young African-American men—in what used to be known more sociologically as “the ghetto”—we get a clear example of what the discussion of social inequality in America has been reduced to: “I’m sad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” He, very politely, asked young black men to stop killing each other, and even printed his cell number in an effort to hook hopeful candidates up with underfunded, overtaxed programs—and printed stories of those struggles against ruination in the newspaper.

The only competition this liberal response gets is the more widely held notion that if the young brothers and potential superpredators just stopped affecting the cool pose of hip-hop and got with the Booker T. Washington/Bill Cosby program of self-help, then all the corners would clear, the jails would empty out, the young black men could join the well-behaved consumer-citizenry, and America would have a brighter day.

Both Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men and Black Males Left Behind struggle against this rhetorical and intellectual impoverishment. Both books begin with the uncomfortable facts of structural inequality in America. “As few as 20 percent of black teens are employed at any time,” write the authors in Reconnecting. “Among young black men age 16 through 24 not enrolled in school only about half are working; and roughly one-third of all young black men are involved with the criminal justice system at any time (awaiting trial, in prison or jail, or on probation or parole), and a similar percentage will spend some time in prison or jail during the course of their lives.”

However, both books try to take this over-reported empirical reality and have a different kind of conversation. They extend from the premise that we can produce social policy—both programs and social understanding—that can change what it means to be young and black in a place like Baltimore, a premise not everyone accepts and one often obscured by our more emotive, impoverished responses.

Reconnecting focuses on three broad areas of youth policy in refreshing specificity: education and training, financial incentives to work, and barriers facing young noncustodial fathers and ex-offenders. In education, rather than a tired rehearsal of school reform, the book insists on doing some specific things. For example, make Pell Grants more available to people with criminal histories and the creation of a “national apprenticeship program.” If urban schools are dysfunctional, if employers aren’t getting the workers they need, and if society wants young men not to drop out, then create what the authors call “true pathways” to meaningful work that an apprenticeship program would allow.

Such work has to pay, though, and in today’s America the dirty secret is that we want the work done but don’t want to pay for it. It’s not enough to point out that the Bethlehem Steel and GM plants are no more. It’s not enough to say everyone must aspire to join the overeducated so-called creative class. There must be financial incentives to do society’s grunt work. The authors argue persuasively for an increase in the minimum wage, a targeted wage subsidy to disconnected youth, and an extension of the successful Earned Income Tax Credit to low-wage male workers and noncustodial parents who are otherwise living a legit life and trying to take care of their kids. The authors also argue for a “total change in the way the child support system treats low income fathers.” You can’t get blood from a stone, and the present system perversely provides young fathers the incentive to stay in the underground economy.

Left Behind goes even deeper in sociological detail examining things such as the “spatial mismatch” between where young black men live and where the jobs are; the evidence that “the high rates of crime and incarceration among young black men are likely to reduce the employment prospects of those with no criminal background themselves”; and significant evidence that young black men greatly desire—when it is available—the legitimate, identity-producing, adequately paid work that we used to call blue-collar in this country.

Both books struggle against America’s hardened ideological bias against black boys and young men. As Hugh Price, former CEO of the National Urban League, notes in the forward to Reconnecting, young black men are the least popular group in America with politicians: “Perversely enough, the only potent lobby that looks after their food, clothing and shelter is the prison-industrial complex that incarcerates them.”

Both books, however, work very hard to distance themselves from being tarnished as some kind of bleeding-heart tract. They both use the Clinton-era welfare reform as their touchstone. The story goes something like this: Once upon a time there was the Welfare Queen (black, mind you), driving a Caddy, popping out babies, and laughing all the way to the bank with her AFDC check, WIC voucher, food stamps, and other handouts. The Welfare Queen was as real to the American imagination as the Wicked Witch was to Dorothy. Then along comes the great and powerful Bill Clinton, who, in his Sista Souljah moment, ends welfare as we knew it.

Today, both books go to great pains to point out, political discourse has changed. The Welfare Queen has melted away. Now we simply have, for the most part, the noble, hardscrabble lives of poor moms looking for work and day care. It is, indeed, a significant change in political imagination. The authors of Reconnecting and Left Behind fundamentally make the case that social policy can do for black men what it ostensibly did for low-income women.

Where “welfare reform” was successful, citizens and policy-makers got beyond their emotive responses. Where it worked, significant investment was made in educational opportunities, child care, the EITC, and providing meaningful, adequately paid work. While both books do a good job suggesting how such efforts could work for young black men, you nonetheless come away from them with more than a little doubt and dissatisfaction. The cri de coeur just makes for too good copy. Railing against baggy pants and music videos is just too tasty mind candy. And let’s be real—in this age of military adventures, unsustainable debt, and meretricious political representation, there will be no analog to “welfare reform” for the brothers. We’re not in Kansas anymore. What was that cell number again?

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