During the 40-minute commute to his job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 28-year-old Greg Walton often takes time to reflect on his blessings.
As he drives through the heart of Boston, across the Charles River and into Cambridge, Mass., he marvels at his fortune: a beautiful wife, a healthy 19-month-old son, a home and a good job. It's an impressive result for a kid who came into the world with the odds stacked against him.
Walton's mother is a drug addict. He never knew his father. As a kid he bounced back and forth between family members' sofa beds and foster care. Although he managed to receive his high school diploma, after graduation he ran with a rough crowd and spent time in the state penitentiary on a weapon conviction.
In the neighborhood where Walton grew up, childhood stories like his are so common they hardly bear notice.
But outcomes like his are rare. The vicious cycle of poverty, fatherlessness, unemployment and incarceration is a trap few young men escape in Walton's neighborhood.
How did he do it?
After leaving prison Walton determined to make something of himself, so he joined a program to help troubled young men develop the necessary skills to land respectable jobs. His own personal story shows that the way out of poverty often involves a helping hand.
The cycle of poverty
"Unemployment rates for young men with little education (today) exceed rates for comparable men during the Great Depression," says University of Wisconsin Public Affairs Professor Timothy Smeeding.
The problem is particularly acute for minorities: Almost 30 percent of young black men between the ages of 16 and 24 were unemployed between 2009 and 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
High unemployment rates are strongly correlated with a lack of education. More than 50 percent of young minority men in high-poverty neighborhoods drop out of high school, according to Harry Holzer of Georgetown University. With limited options, many turn to crime.
Nearly 30 percent of these young men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Things become even more complicated once kids enter the picture. Two-thirds of men with a high school degree or less father children before age 30, according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Many are not married to the mother of their first child and do not have custody, yet go on to have more children with other women, Smeeding says.
Children growing up in these circumstances are likely to be poor, struggle in school and find themselves in conflict with the law, notes Smeeding.
In 2011, 44 percent of children being raised by a single mother were living in poverty, compared to 12 percent of those being raised by two parents. That cycle typically repeats itself for the next generation.
Sociologists argue that young men often succumb to lives of crime and delinquency because they lack stable male role models. University of Delaware Sociologist Karen Parker has done work showing that in cities with fewer men that are married and have a job, there are higher rates of juvenile crime and violence.
Forty-three-year-old Edward Weaver of East Indianapolis, Ind., attests to the difficulty of choosing another path. The son of a drug-addicted teenage mother and an absent father, Weaver more or less raised himself. As a young man it never occurred to him that there might be another way to support himself. "Growing up my role models were pimps and drug dealers," said Weaver. "They had nice cars, fat pockets ... power and respect." The appearance of wealth reinforced the idea that men don't make their way in the world by going to school or getting a job — they make it in the street.
Finding a way out
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