Editor's Notebook: The nation will pay for failing to invest in its young black males

Sep 1, 2006

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

A decade after federal welfare reform began to move women with children from welfare to work, activists and scholars are turning a spotlight on the plight of America's young black men. 

While women have made some social and economic gains under policies designed to promote work and limit public assistance, young men are losing ground. Black men in particular. Studies released this summer show that, more than any other cohort, black males increasingly are disconnected from school and from work.

One study, conducted for the Urban Institute, lays out these grim statistics: Only half of African-American men ages 16-24 who aren't in school are working; and roughly one-third of young African-American men are in jail or prison, or on parole or probation, at any given time.

A few of the challenges faced by these young men are recent in origin: fewer chances for higher-paying industrial jobs in a service-oriented, technology-driven economy and stiffer enforcement of child support orders against noncustodial fathers who are themselves poor. Other obstacles have been identified over the decades: a decline in the quality of inner-city schools, a rise in harsher drug sentencing and the migration of jobs and the middle class to the suburbs, which further separates the unskilled from potential work and leaves the poor behind with few, if any, role models in the labor force. 

Through the 20th century, Chicago served as a laboratory for the study of these economic and social shifts. Using that city's neighborhoods to draw his conclusions, scholar William Julius Wilson, formerly of the University of Chicago, tracked a growing culture of poverty in post-World War II cities that condemned blacks to poor education, idleness and crime. 

In 1996, Wilson finished When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, allowing Illinois Issues to publish an excerpt (see December 1996, page 28). Much of what he had to say is still relevant.

"Neighborhoods that offer few legitimate employment opportunities, inadequate job information networks, and poor schools lead to the disappearance of work," he wrote. "That is, where jobs are scarce, where people rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to help their friends and neighbors find jobs, and where there is a disruptive or degraded school life purporting to prepare youngsters for eventual participation in the workforce, many people eventually lose their feeling of connectedness to work in the formal economy; they no longer expect work to be a regular, and regulating, force in their lives." 

Wilson prefigured the disconnect among young people in a culture that lacks the "idea of work as a central experience of adult life."

This month, Robert Joiner, a former editorial writer and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Max Bittle, a photojournalism student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, bring us up-to-date, giving the growing national problem a state focus and highlighting potential solutions, including an alternative school for dropouts in East St. Louis: Tomorrow's Builders Charter School.

Through Joiner and Bittle, we meet 20-year-old Darrell Johnson, "who dropped out of school in the seventh grade and is just now seeing a little light in his life," and "Mr. Willis," his principal, whose principles for success at school are to "maintain good attendance, maintain a good attitude, work hard and 'Don't piss Mr. Willis off.'"

Evaluating the long-term effectiveness of such schools is among the recommendations presented in the Urban Institute study. Authors Peter Edelman, Harry J. Holzer and Paul Offner identify three key policy areas: promoting education and job training programs; creating financial incentives for accepting lower-paying work, including an increase in the federal minimum wage; and reducing barriers facing noncustodial fathers and former prisoners. They also conclude that progress will require personal choices, and cooperative efforts among multiple agencies. 

Holzer argued in a separate essay for The Washington Post that "some of these efforts will require additional public resources, and many will be politically controversial. But the cost to the nation of failing to invest in all of its young men is far greater." 

National awards 

Illinois Illinois honors, 2006 

Illinois Issues columnist Charles N. Wheeler III won a first place in magazine commentary/news analysis from Capitolbeat, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. The national award was presented last month at the group's conference in Columbus, Ohio. It recognized Wheeler's assessments of policy and politics in Illinois government, including wind farming and the governor's All Kids health insurance program. This is the third year in a row he has taken top honors in the annual contest. He won for columns that appeared in the magazine over the past year. 

Capitolbeat is an eight-year-old association of journalists who cover the nation's Statehouses. The organization now has more than 300 members from 46 states. Illinois is well-represented. Kate Clements, Statehouse bureau chief for The News-Gazette of Urbana-Champaign, serves on the board.   

Other Illinois journalists were honored at this year's conference.

Chicago Sun-Times reporters Chris Fusco, Dave McKinney, Steve Warmbir and Scott Fornek won first place in beat reporting for newspapers with circulations of more than 75,000. The group won for articles on campaign contributions, hiring and contract practices in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration.

Copley Illinois Newspapers reporter Adriana Colindres won second place in beat reporting for newspapers with circulations under 75,000 for her news reports on policy issues, including utility regulation. 

Associated Press reporter John O'Connor won second place in beat reporting for the wires for his stories on hiring in Blagojevich's administration and the relationship between state contracts and campaign contributions. He also took second place in the single report category for his article on the use of interns by the administration to get around veterans' preference in hiring. Associated Press reporter Christopher Wills won third place in commentary/news analysis for the wires for his assessments of the Blagojevich Administration.

Small Newspaper Group reporter Scott Reeder got an honorable mention for his investigation of teacher tenure.

Wheeler heads the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, which includes an internship at the Illinois Statehouse. Colindres, O'Connor, Wills and Reeder are graduates of that program.

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, September 2006