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WITH CRIME RATES PLUMMETING ACROSS THE COUNTRY, THE TOUGH-ON-CRIME CHORUS HAS BEEN CROWING that the nation's social experiments with mandatory minimums, three- strikes-you're-out, and other punitive criminal-justice policies are finally beginning to bear strange fruit in reduced crime. I'm not one to deflate anyone's hard-earned gloat, but it's possible that this profoundly costly approach to crime reduction—costly both in human consequences and government expenditures—is not the only reason America is enjoying a Leave It to Beaver era of crime-free communities.

Unemployment rates that hover around 30-year lows of 4 percent have to be factored into any serious analysis of reduced crime. The booming economy has created unprecedented demand for workers. In some U.S. cities, employers have even had to take desperate measures like actually raising wages to attract job applicants.

The demand for workers is so high in fact that a group of people traditionally left out of cyclical economic upsurges are also beginning to be included in this late, great 20th-century economic boom; young, often poorly educated African American men, even those previously locked out of gainful employment by criminal records, are beginning to be drawn into the formal economy through stable employment.

A recent study by researchers at Harvard University and the College of William and Mary of low-wage men in 322 U.S. urban communities reports dramatic employment gains among young African American men. According to the study, African American men aged 16 to 24 with a high-school education or less are working in greater numbers, earning bigger paychecks, and committing fewer crimes than in the early 1990s. In the 14 U.S. communities where overall unemployment has been below 4 percent in every year since 1992, the percentage of young African American men who are working has jumped from 52 to 64 percent. (Note that these figures indicate an unemployment rate that persists at an alarming 36 percent among this group.)

In the past, America has toyed with a national commitment to full employment, the idea that everyone who wants a job and is capable of a job should have a job--not as a societal goal but as a social right. Pope Leo XIII's wisdom in Rerum novarum that work justly engaged and justly rewarded is one of the truest expressions of our humanity and our life together in community inspired generations of labor activists.

If sustained unemployment can breed the frustration and despair that leads to drug use and crime, it only stands to reason that the reverse must also be true. A decent job has always been at least an opening stake in society for even its most disaffected members.

With one in three of them in jail, prison, or under some manner of court supervision and forced to shoulder a disproportionate share of virtually all the ills of contemporary American life, there are probably few groups as alienated from the so-called mainstream as young African American men. One of the authors of the study, Harvard's Richard B. Freeman, told the New York Times: "This shows how critical it is not to give up on these guys. If you give these kids a break, they come back."

It is comforting that the rewards of our heightened economic output finally show some sign of trickling down to those who can benefit from it the most. It is reassuring to believe that a foundation of stable employment may finally begin to be constructed for those thousands of young people who have been locked out by racism. But it is a painful irony that this "good news" points to the veracity of a long-standing suspicion in the African American community that "last hired, first fired" job discrimination continues to plague their community 30 years after the marches of the civil-rights movement have ended. Those who argue that antidiscrimination campaigns such as affirmative action are no longer necessary might want to consider how many years of economic prosperity were required to trickle down enough work to force employers to seek young African American men.

We have been down this road before. Steady improvements in wages and job opportunities for African Americans were obliterated by the economic and social reversals of the 1960s and 1970s. A generation of young people then was abandoned to crime, drugs, and indifference. When this boom inevitably busts, what will become of these newest of American workers? What will become of their stake in the mainstream?

Kevin Clarke is the Managing Editor of Online Products for Claretian Publications and a Contributing Editor to U.S. Catholic.

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