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
As Walton and Weaver both found, turning your life around is more complicated than just deciding to change.
"In this economy people who haven't made mistakes are having a hard time getting jobs," said Walton. "When you have a record, convincing someone to give you (a) second chance is an uphill battle. A lot of people out there just don't believe in them."
Weaver was 40 and had done several stints in prison before he realized that there was no good ending to the life he was living.
"All the men I looked up to, they're dead or in prison." This wasn't the life he wanted. But what else could he do? "I've been a gangster all my life," said Weaver. "I never had a job. I got a GED but I also spent a lot of time in prison." He applied for dozens of jobs, but no one was interested in hiring a 40-year-old man with no experience and a rap sheet.
The rejections started getting to him. Was he doing the right thing? Why wasn't it easier? Hard-pressed for the money he needed to support his children and ailing mother, Weaver remembers receiving "job offers" from old street contacts.
"It was hard to just hang up the phone," he said. "I was hurting for cash and didn't know if anything would work out for me."
Walton also struggled to stay straight after he was released from prison. Although he managed to secure a job bagging groceries at a local supermarket, his paltry wages were not enough to cover the cost of living in a major metropolitan city. "I remember crying at night," he said, "and I wondered why this has to be so hard."
Walton has a lot of sympathy for kids who come out a prison with the hope of dramatically changing their lives and end up right back where they started.
"You have to work hard, and stay the course ... because there will be a lot of nos before someone says yes," he said.
A helping hand
Walton and Weaver credit their new life trajectories to the support they received as participants in work training programs designed to help men transition to jobs in the mainstream economy. These programs function to help men like Walton and Weaver find people who will say yes to them.
Walton participated in a program called Year Up, a nonprofit program founded in 2000 by Wall Street investment banker Gerald Chertavian.
The Year Up program includes a six-month technical and professional skills training course followed by a six-month internship at a major corporation like AOL, JPMorgan Chase or State Street.
Six years ago, after completing his IT internship, Walton landed a job with MIT. He started in a reception position and over the past six years worked his way up to a managerial role. He joined the Year Up board of directors and is doing what he can to pay it forward.
"When I meet kids I can talk about how things really are," he said. "They know I've been where they are, that I got into trouble, that I went through this program, and that can give them the motivation and knowledge that it is possible to change."
Walton's experience with Year Up isn't unique. Data collected from the Economic Mobility Corp., a New York-based organization that evaluates social programs designed to help disadvantaged youth, shows the program has a significant positive impact. Researchers compared Year Up program participants with young people who applied for the program but were not admitted because of limited capacity.
They found that participants earned 30 percent more than those who did not participate. "These are the most exciting evaluation results we've seen in youth employment for 20 or 30 years — and the first to show a really substantial earnings gain," said Mark Elliott, president of Economic Mobility Corp.
Not all work programs are as formal as Year Up. Several months after leaving prison, Weaver was given a six-month internship with RecycleForce, an Indianapolis-based plastics recycling company that gives work opportunities to men with criminal records.
Weaver worked hard and eventually was hired on full time. He is coming up on his one-year anniversary with the company. He makes $9 per hour working 40 hours a week.
While he'd like to make more money, his newfound stability gives him hope for the future.
"I may not like where I am at right now, but I am right with God, and this (job) is not my last stop," he said.
He likes knowing that his children, ages 4 to 26, see their father out there working hard, setting a positive example. "My kids are going to walk a different path than me," he said.
Need for employers
Walton and Weaver credit the work programs they participated in for helping them transition into their new lives. They also realize they were extremely lucky to be selected. Getting this kind of support is actually quite difficult — at least 12 states in the country do not offer any kind of responsible fatherhood work training programs. In other states the wait time for participation extends for months.
Access is limited because helping men successfully participate in the mainstream economy has not been a policy priority for the government, said New York University political science professor Lawrence Mead. The majority of income support programs like CHIP, which covers the health insurance for children under the age of 18, and EITC, which supplements disadvantaged families incomes, are mainly for women and children.
Compounding the problem is that most work training programs are also geared toward women. It's problematic, according to Mead, because one of the best ways to help children and women move out of poverty is for fathers to be gainfully employed.
Vicky Turetsky of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C., agrees. "The bottom line is we need some government involvement in working with men as well as women."
The reach of programs like Year Up is limited by their ability to find corporations willing to give internships to program participants, according to Chicago-based marketing specialist for Year Up Daisy Morin. It may seem like a risk, but it can change lives. Weaver and Walton both emphasize the importance of finding willing employers.
"We want to work. We need to work," said Weaver. "We just need someone to give us a chance."
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