THE BLOG
09/19/2013 09:11 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2013

Winston Needs a Bike

When Bloomberg Businessweek's online global economics journal tells you, "The plight of the young, black man is worse than you think," it's got to be time to take notice. Businessweek isn't some bleeding heart, liberal, do-gooder rag. No, it's a bona fide, hardcore, dollars and cents financial analysis periodical.

And when they write 'worse than you think' they mean gosh darn bleak. Right now 52 percent of young white men aged 16 to 24 have jobs. Only 33 percent of young black men the same age are employed. And what's worse, those numbers are artificially high because they aren't counting the guys in jail.

According to the Bloomberg report there are more Americans in prison than there are in the U.S. military and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't count incarcerated people in their numbers. Because there are proportionately so many fewer white guys in jail then black guys, the young black unemployment statistics -- if someone did the math but no one has -- would be even more horrifying.

What's the remedy for this problem? Well, according to the same article, municipalities should stop arresting young kids for petty crimes like hopping on a subway without paying, breaking windows, and other mere mischief that's been criminalized over the years. Oh, and first and foremost, there needs to be a whole lot more invested in education. The Bloomberg story quotes Becky Pettit, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, and she says that "there is a strong link between failure in school and a life of crime and imprisonment."

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics does have numbers on a black man's odds of going to prison if he was born in 1991. A third of all those black men will be behind bars at some point in their lives. That's almost six times the percentage of similar age white men that will be incarcerated. Thirty-two percent compared with 5.9 percent.

And it's racism that makes the difference. It's the reason black students are twice as likely to get suspended than white students, and it's the reason that light-skinned blacks are 50 percent more likely to get a job than dark-skinned blacks. Forty-five percent of black children live below the poverty line, while 16 percent of white children do.

Now that the stage is set, the real reason for this column is to discuss Eleanor. Of course, Eleanor's not her real name, and her grandson's name isn't really Winston.

Eleanor's raising her grandson on her own. The boy's mom is gone and Eleanor's all Winston has. Luckily for him, that's a lot. I met these two at a homeless shelter.

When Congress passed and President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, there was a housing component. It called for Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing and gave homeless advocates a way to help people like Eleanor fast forward into a home. That money's all gone now and the congressional sequester scheme is transforming the "homeless to housing" situation back into a mindless logjam. But at least Eleanor and Winston got out.

Winston's grandma doesn't have much education and has been a low-wage earner all her life. She works as a cleaning lady, but it takes all she makes just to keep them home, warm and fed.

Now all Winston needs -- besides a way to some day understand why his mom left and how to process the sacrifices his grandma has made for him -- is an education. He needs something at school that will make him struggle against a racism stacked deck to be one of the 45 percent of black men that will graduate from high school and maybe even go on to college.

And that magical thing is the point of this story. See, Winston loves football. I asked his grandma when I saw her today if Winston was playing football now that he's in high school. Eleanor said that he had been, but he had to drop off the team. See, he didn't have a way to get back and forth from practices. Eleanor and Winston live about five miles from the school. Eleanor said, "I thought they'd give the players a ride home, but I guess they don't do that anymore."

I asked if Winston had a bike. Eleanor looked down and muttered, "No, I guess he really needs one though."

Winston really needs a bike and a chance to play football and a chance to beat the odds. When a grandma makes $10 an hour and is raising a grandchild alone, how long does it take to save enough for a bike? Winter's coming, perhaps it'll be a warm one and the utilities will be low. Perhaps. And perhaps it won't.