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posted: 12/16/2012 5:00 AM

Dispelling the second-term blues

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A president's first term is a fresh track in the snow. His second term moves on a set of rutted paths. The shiny cause has become a vast machine, its wheels spinning on internal impulses unrelated to presidential priorities or pressing needs.

As President Obama moves toward his fourth State of the Union address, he will be looking for policies that appeal to the country, but also try to rekindle the purpose of his administration. Inertia and intellectual exhaustion are fought with presidential initiatives.

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There is one issue in particular that cries out for attention while receiving almost none. Our politics moves from budget showdown to cultural conflict to trivial controversy while carefully avoiding the greatest single threat to the unity of America: the vast, increasing segregation of young, African-American men and boys from the promise of their country.

America is in the process of managing, accommodating and containing a crisis that should be intolerable. More than 50 percent of young black men in inner cities are now dropping out of school -- making high school graduation the exception to this dismal new rule. They consequently lag behind other groups in college attendance and graduation. Their rates of incarceration are disproportionately high and rates of workforce participation disproportionately low. "For virtually each outcome considered," Harry Holzer of Georgetown University has written, "young black men now lag behind every other race and gender group in the U.S."

The problem has gotten worse for decades, in good economic times and bad. Others benefited from the tight labor markets of the 1990s. African-American men did not. By 2004, more than half of all black men in their 20s were unemployed. And the size of this problem gets consistently underestimated, since employment figures officially exclude the incarcerated. A problem that seems insoluble is thus rendered invisible.

Social scientists debate which causes of these problems are most causal, but generally agree on the list. Declining blue-collar employment opportunities. Failing schools. Lingering racism. Absent parents (just 37 percent of black children are raised in two-parent families). The growth of an "oppositional culture" that undermines achievement. Child support policies that unintentionally penalize honest work (up to half of black males are involved in the child support system). An incarceration boom that has made ex-offenders less employable.

Some of these trends gather a disturbing momentum. More than 50 percent of prison inmates are parents with minor children -- and those children are significantly more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Issues of economics and values are often impossible to disentangle. "As relative rewards to mainstream legal work of less educated young black men have declined," argues Holzer, "so have their own attachment to the mainstream world of school and work and to mainstream behaviors and values more broadly."

Who in America devotes sustained, practical attention to young African-American males? "Perversely enough," Hugh Price of the National Urban League has observed, "the only potent lobby that looks after their food, clothing and shelter is the prison-industrial complex, which thrives on incarcerating them."

This general lack of national urgency is an indictment of people on the whole ideological spectrum, including liberals. Once upon a time, liberalism was about something more than the marginal tax rates and the interests of the middle class. Leaders such as Hubert Humphrey, Robert F. Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan focused national sympathy on marginalized groups. Moynihan gave sophisticated attention to African-American males in his 1965 report on black families in America.

If the re-election of President Obama is to mark a new era of liberal governance, let's at least have some causes worthy of the liberal moral impulse. The one advantage of a social challenge on this scale is that it offers broad opportunities for creative policy: promoting early childhood education and parenting skills; encouraging youth development and mentoring; expanding technical education and apprenticeships; fostering college enrollment and completion; offering greater opportunities for national service; extending wage subsidies to low-income, noncustodial fathers; reforming sentencing and easing prisoner re-entry. When there is a canyon to fill, just about everyone can usefully take a shovel.

A large presidential initiative on this topic would have an influence beyond policy. It would encourage understanding for some Americans who currently attract little of it. It would allow Obama to solicit conservative input and engage religious institutions. And it would be a powerful way to dispel the second-term blues.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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