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Too many lack opportunities for success

Robert W. Patterson served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Gov. Corbett When tragedy unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., the media-academy complex conjured up a "Hands up, don't shoot!" meme to portray America as incorrigibly racist. While emboldening the adversarial class, the berating spin does nothing to address the empir

When tragedy unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., the media-academy complex conjured up a "Hands up, don't shoot!" meme to portray America as incorrigibly racist. While emboldening the adversarial class, the berating spin does nothing to address the empirical data confirming that a middle-class life remains out of reach for a whole generation of Michael Browns, including young African Americans in Philadelphia. Which leaves the City of Brotherly Love vulnerable to the same disorder and mayhem that put the troubled St. Louis suburb on the map.

Everyone laments that African Americans face lower chances of finishing high school and joining the labor force, a reality that led Mayor Nutter, as part of an effort to boost graduation rates, to appoint the Commission on African American Males.

Yet even if every African American youth completed high school, that achievement would not bring the city peace. As Michael Brown's behavior before the shooting suggests, a diploma does not equip young adults with needed life skills. Ominously, Drexel's Center for Labor Markets and Policy estimates that only 52 percent of all high school graduates ages 20 to 24 in Kensington and eastern North Philadelphia hold jobs.

The picture grows bleaker when narrowed to African American men. According to the U.S. Labor Department's Community Population Survey, only 50 percent of all black males ages 20 to 24 were employed statewide, while 25 percent were unemployed, in 2013. Averaging 2011-13 data, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey pegs those measures for Philadelphia at 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively. The two data sets are not strictly comparable but nonetheless confirm high numbers of "disconnected males," as the Institute for Black Male Achievement describes men neither employed nor enrolled in school.

The institute's "Life Outcomes Dashboard" signals other red flags, but its set of "family" indicators ignores the single most accurate predictor of school readiness, educational attainment, GPA, delinquency, health outcomes, and aptness for employment: parental-marital status.

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan first warned about the dire consequences of unwed childbearing in 1965, 25 percent of African American births were outside of wedlock. Today, 72 percent of African American babies lack those protective bonds. (The percentage for Hispanics is 54, and for whites 29, quantifying Moynihan's later clarification that family breakdown has become "ominous . . . for all races.") Like Brown, the vast majority of black sons in Philadelphia have been denied a father who is married to their mother.

This missing social foundation is stubbornly ignored by elites. Even politicians blame deteriorating urban conditions, as did George W. Bush after Katrina, on a "history of racism" or the "legacy of inequality." But the real culprit is 50 years of policies that washed away proven New Deal nation-building with a flood of heady Great Society programs.

The older Democratic paradigm, which enjoyed Republican buy-in during World War II and under President Dwight Eisenhower, concentrated on creating decent jobs for working-class men. That bipartisan strategy set the "American standard" of intact families supported on a single high wage, as FDR's labor secretary, Frances Perkins, said. Helping to win World War II and the Cold War, these imperatives even shaped the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which emphasized eliminating barriers to stable private-sector employment so that black fathers could provide for their families.

But in the late 1960s, that working-class focus was hijacked by feminists obsessed with alleged discrimination against their Ivy League sisters and enabling single motherhood by boosting public assistance. And as numerous Supreme Court overreaches, including Roe v. Wade, dethroned the exalted position of marriage and children in American life, cities like Philadelphia steadily lost their luster.

Indeed, a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study found that, even as education-attainment measures have improved, only 31 percent of the city's census tracts can be counted today as middle class, compared with 81 percent in 1970.

A related factor: vanishing manufacturing and construction jobs suited to male high school grads, black or white. Pew reports they now represent just 10 percent of middle-income livelihoods citywide, down from a third in 1970. That staggering loss illustrates another departure from the FDR model that, extending the pattern dating back to Alexander Hamilton, valued high-end industrial production - not services, finance, or trade - as the means of lifting all boats.

The two parties have yet to grasp the severity of these dislocations. Republicans place faith in deregulation, small business, and tax-and-spending cuts; the Democrats preach environmentalism, multiculturalism, and LGBT consciousness-raising. Yet none of these hobbyhorses addresses the psychology or circumstances of young black men seeking to make their mark on the world.

Consequently, in the face of "hands up," Washington's "hands off" policies have left a huge pool of lower-class men - a demographic that increasingly includes white "isolates," according to Charles Murray - who seem near-permanently averse to employment or meaningful social bonds, roaming city streets.

That should chill the spine, just as the 1965 Watts riots prompted Moynihan to observe: "From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern Seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future - that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure - that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable."

It's not just inevitable. It's Ferguson. Unless our leadership wakes up, it could be Philadelphia.

Robert W. Patterson served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Gov. Corbett.