RAY SUAREZ: Many of the disturbing images of Hurricane Katrina's victims forced Americans to confront this reality: Racial inequalities in the U.S. remain very large, particularly for African-Americans.
A new report from the National Urban League concludes that many black Americans are struggling to live as well as white Americans. The report found that, despite a more robust economy, the overall well-being of many black American families has stagnated for three years straight.
Researchers found African-Americans did only three-quarters as well as whites, when they measured income, health, education, civil justice, and civic engagement.
The Urban League's report comes on the heels of a series of academic studies showing the nation's 5 million young black men in particular lag behind other groups.
For example, even as the nation's unemployment rate remains low, joblessness for black men between the ages of 20 and 39 has grown; 72 percent of black male high-school dropouts were unemployed in 2004, compared to just 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts.
A growing number of African-American men are serving time, too. In 2004, 21 percent of African-American men in their 20s who didn't attend college were in prison, up from 16 percent in 1995.
And those who are convicted find it difficult to re-enter the job market, even when they go for training at places like Baltimore's Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development.
William Baker, a middle-school dropout, spent 15 years in prison for selling drugs. He now hopes to get a job as an illustrator.
WILLIAM BAKER: I'm not ignorant or illiterate. You know, I have a college degree. I have an AA in human services, even though I dropped out of school at a very young age. The time that I spent in prison, I didn't waste it, right?
And when I came home, I was hoping that, you know, society would give me a chance, you know, to better my life and, you know, start all over, you know? But the wreckage of my past, you know, tends to catch up with me, and I'm not given that opportunity.
RAY SUAREZ: Gary Wingate also served time in prison.
GARY WINGATE: I have no other choices, the type of neighborhood I grew up in, the type of lifestyle that I was basically taught to live, you know what I mean? I didn't really have -- I ain't trying to place the blame or fault, but I have no father in my life, really no male role model. RAY SUAREZ: Many of the studies revealed programs like this, as well as government programs, had shown success and should be scaled up.
For a closer look at the problems facing young African-American men, I'm joined by Joseph Jones, the director of the Baltimore Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development. We just spoke to some of the clients there.
Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy and economics at Georgetown University, who's done extensive studies on these questions.
And David Pate, an ethnographer at the University of Wisconsin School of Social Work in Milwaukee. He specializes in issues of race and poverty.
And, Professor Holzer, maybe you could tell us some of the findings that have pushed you and other researchers to the conclusions that not all black men, but those who are lowest educated and lowest income, are not just failing to keep pace, but falling further behind.
HARRY HOLZER, Georgetown University: Well, the data from the 1990s for many of us were really shocking and very discouraging. The 1990s was the best economic decade in 30 years: booming labor markets, very tight labor shortages in some places.
Low income women, especially African-American women, were pouring into the labor market for a variety of reasons. And yet, low-income men and especially African-American men kept seeing declining employment rates, and black men were falling further behind, in terms of employment during that decade. So that was very discouraging.
And then, when we started looking a little more closely at what might be the causes of that and why things were actually getting worse, what really jumped out at a lot of us is the high rates of incarceration for a lot of these young men.
One-third of all young black men are somehow ensnared in the criminal justice system. One-third of all young black men will do some time behind bars.
And then, on top of that, the fact that so many of them are also non-custodial fathers and have the child support system complicates the efforts of those young men to join the labor market.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pate, when you talk to these young men, what do they tell you about what they find out there? What are the impediments to them, as you might say, getting over?
DAVID PATE, University of Wisconsin: Well, one of the impediments I found when I did my work in Milwaukee, during 1997 to 2000, right when we ended welfare as we know it, that one of the biggest impediments was that, one, the child support system, if the mother had received any type of welfare, and their inability to navigate that system and figure out, how do you deal with an arrears or child support order you really couldn't afford, because the job that you receive was not enough to take care of that order?
And another issue that we don't talk about is: Many of these men were living in the home of these children and taking care of them outside of the child support system, and that was another barrier where I'm paying for this child, but at the same time I'm sending money out in child support. So how do I do both of those things when I have limited income?
RAY SUAREZ: Joseph Jones, what do these gentlemen tell you about their own state of mind? Do they blame this on someone? Do they blame it on themselves? Do they get discouraged easily?
JOSEPH JONES, Baltimore Center for Families: Well, you know, I think, in a lot of cases, they take personal responsibility for what their circumstances are, but they recognize that there are certain things that have happened in their lives that have prevented them from moving forward.
Many of them talk about their anger, hostility and resentment of not knowing their fathers or not having their fathers around or significantly involved in their lives for any consistent period of time.
And, as has already been stated, the large percentage of these guys who have been incarcerated or exposed to the criminal justice system, when they go out into the community to seek employment and they face rejection, after rejection, after rejection, they get so disheartened, they tend to give up.
And there is one consistent employer that's always available, and that happens to be the drug trade. And far too many of our young boys are succumbing to that particular interest. And somehow we've got to figure out a way to reconnect these young men with their fathers at a much earlier age so that they get an opportunity to move forward in life.
RAY SUAREZ: Study after study talked about these men being increasingly disconnected from the conventional day-to-day life of the cities where they live, isolated, not connected in anyway. How does that visit itself on the men you work? Do they sense that they're no longer attached to the rest of Baltimore in some way?
JOSEPH JONES: Well, you know, it's a strange dilemma, because you get men who really want to do the right thing. Particularly in this particular era as it relates to reentry, there's a public policy that's promoting reentry back into the community and in a safe and a clear way so that people are connected to services.
But when it comes to this issue of employment, they feel so hopeless, they recognize that they have these barriers on their criminal record. They don't know how to really negotiate a conversation with an employer.
And as soon as they begin to stumble through that conversation, they recognize that rejection is soon to follow, and they tend to want to just discard the whole mainstream process of being connected to something positive. And oftentimes, they even, you know, shy away from their own families and their children because they don't feel like men. You know, they don't feel whole in terms of the way in which men are socialized in our society.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pate, you've talked about and written about some of these factors as baggage that these men bring into the marketplace. Have the laws of states around the country only made those bags that they're carrying even heavier?
DAVID PATE: I really do think they have. You know, since the welfare reform has been enacted, a lot of these men -- well, let me back up. For men period, there is no social welfare policy.
So if you're a low-income dad who has made some bad choices and you're trying to make some good choices, it's really hard to make those good choices based on some of the current policies that we have passed and allowed in our country to go forward.
I had a focus group last night with a group of fathers. And the folks who started out with the men saying, "I feel powerless from the day I walk out the door and try to take care of my kids, particularly if I've made one bad choice."
And for them, it's been -- what I've seen over the last seven years, that bad choice could be, "I just didn't pay my traffic tickets in time, and now I'm a victim of circumstance."
But I think that we have seen a lot more baggage that they're carrying because child support is very efficient. This country has gotten a lot more behind the fact that they want these men to be responsible, and I think they are being as responsible as they can, but there's no social welfare policy that enables them to move forward.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Holzer, that enforcement of child support and other things are seen as a great spur to the numbers that we're seeing from women. But black women grow up in the same high poverty neighborhoods as black men. They attend the same schools that are judged as insufficient to the task.
Why are we seeing such a gap between the achievement of black women and black men from these same areas?
HARRY HOLZER: Well, this is a fact that you're seeing, not just in the black community, in all communities right now, even in the white and Latino communities. Young women are graduating from high school and going on to college in higher numbers than young men, so there's a broader issue here that we haven't fully grasped.
But I think what's happened in the black community -- and David's comments refer to this -- in the 1990s, you had a set of policies, some of them were carrots and some of them were sticks to push young women, single moms, into the labor market, to force them to work.
But at the same time, we provided a lot of supports when they did so. We expanded the earned income tax credit, which helps to subsidize low-earning mothers with custody of children in the labor market. We provided more child support, more health care.
While we were subsidizing the women, we started punishing the fathers even more, taxing them more heavily through the child support system, throwing many more of them in prison which, of course, now they come out and it's much harder for them to enter the labor market.
So, at the same time that we're enabling the women and supporting their efforts, we're putting more barriers in place for the men. And I think, when younger people in the adolescent years or in the teen years, when they look down the road, I think the women and the men maybe are getting a different message, and maybe the women are starting to get the message, "I can make it in this world, and I'm going to make it in this world."
The young men, I think at a very early age, get a signal that says, "There's no real place for me," and so they start disconnecting.
RAY SUAREZ: Joseph Jones, how does that translate into the culture of a neighborhood? Is a guy who works steadily and reliably at a low-wage, low-status job a bigger hero on a block or a guy who's just there a lot and not really doing that?
JOSEPH JONES: Well, you know, to be honest with you, it's, quite frankly, more of a badge of honor for someone to say, "I'm just coming home from prison" than "I'm just coming home from school," right?
That's because the opportunities, the ways in which the street culture is glorified sometimes in our mainstream media and in other ways far surpasses and interests them more than the kind of things that will allow them to be good partners, good fathers, good sons.
And, you know, this whole issue of providing social support to the women is the right thing to do. But as a woman goes into a welfare office and she asks to become eligible for support, I think it would make much more sense that we would also ask her about her partner, and then say, hey, we want to talk to him, as well, not just for child support, but to talk about your interests in forming a family and to work with them together in terms of creating a family service plan that incorporates, that integrates him into the equation."
Right now, the only thing that we look to him for is to get his vital information to establish paternity and construct the child support order.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pate, you heard Mr. Jones open the social toolbox. Maybe you can look for some tools in there, as well.
In an approach to not only the men who are the subject of a lot of these studies, the late-teens and early-20s guys, but those who are supposed to be entering some of their peak earning years but aren't, in their 30s and 40s, what do we do now? Once we've measured the situation, what do we do?
DAVID PATE: Well, I think the one thing we can do is really look at the idea of providing some social welfare policy for low-income men who are in -- who are parents of children. If you don't have a child in your custody, you're not eligible for any services in this country.
And many of these men -- as the men I talked to last night talked about the fact that, if they really wanted to get something for their kids, even when they have their kids in their care, it's really hard because they don't have legal custody.
And I think we have to just recognize that men are parents, and they are wanting to be responsible and take care of their kids, but oftentimes the interests of race and gender get in the way of how we provide services to parents in this country. So I really do recommend that we look at the whole idea of providing social welfare policy for all parents, men and women.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Holzer?
HARRY HOLZER: I agree. We want to increase the ability of these men to succeed in the labor market and also their incentives to do so. I think, right now, the incentives are for them to disappear from the regular labor market.
I think there are reforms in the child support system that would improve their incentives to remain attached, to work, to pay their child support, as well as their ability to do so.
And also I think we also want to do a better job of preventing these things early on, reaching these young folks when they're in middle school, when they're in high school, creating better career and technical education, apprenticeships, links to the labor market, pathways to college, to post-secondary education, and to make it clear to them that there are pathways to success and make it more likely that they'll choose those pathways.
RAY SUAREZ: And if we could do one thing for your clients, Joseph Jones, what would it be?
JOSEPH JONES: I think we, as what's happening now, we now have the deficit reduction act, which in it includes -- excuse me, $50 million a year over the next five years to invest in responsible fatherhood. That includes work activities, work around healthy relationships and healthy marriage, and parenting skills.
I think we need to take that and ratchet it up tenfold to really be able to do a deep penetration in these communities and reach out to these men -- many of them want to find a way out -- and not wait until they become 35, 40 years old.
We've got to address the issues of that particular population, but to get down to this younger population whose values are right on the fence and to help them shape these values and beliefs into positive attributes that they can aspire to be the kind of citizens we all want them to be.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.
JOSEPH JONES: Thank you.
HARRY HOLZER: Thank you.