Half a Century Later: What Are the Economic Prospects for Young Black Men?

Aug 28, 2013

By Linda Harris

Fifty years ago, we marched!  Today, we commemorate the march, the movement, and the message! But will tomorrow hold promise for this next generation of young men of color?

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom we pause and reflect on the significance of that moment, the courage of leadership, the resolve of the marchers - from all races and walks of life -- and the fervor in the collective call for promoting economic justice and ending poverty through unimpeded access to full employment and decent wages for all Americans.  

It was the power of that movement and that conviction that launched organizations like CLASP 44 years ago.  Promoting those policies that lift low-income individuals and families from poverty into the economic mainstream has been etched in our organizational persona since inception.  Yet despite crucial progress, the nation has tremendous work yet to do to realize the vision articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Today, 16 million children - fully one-third of all black and Latino children - live in poverty.  Unless we act soon, mounting evidence suggests that children born into poverty risk continued poverty for much of their adult lives.

Honoring this moment in history provides the opportunity both to remember the path that has been traveled and to advance the course that must be charted to deliver on that promise to children, youth, families, and communities that find themselves still far outside of the economic mainstream.  Honoring the legacy will hopefully inspire us all to be relentless in our advocacy, fervent in our commitment, and bold and innovative in our solutions.  

Beginning on Labor Day, CLASP will be releasing a series of reports and briefs about youth of color that focus on issues impacting their life outcomes, including school discipline, unemployment, dropout prevention, and community interventions.  The first in the series, Feel the Heat: the Unrelenting Challenge of Young Black Male Unemployment, addresses the historically intractable nature of black male unemployment. You may be surprised to learn that at the time of the march in 1963, the employment rates for young black and white men were at parity.  Eighty three percent of young black men age 18 to 24 were working as were 41% of black teens.  This closely tracked the rates of white males. However, the employment situation for black males has been in free fall ever since.  Today the employment rate for 18-24 year-old black males stands at 49% and at 19% for black male teens.  Employment rates for young black men declined every decade without rebounding after each recession.  Employment rates for young white men have declined, as well, but not as dramatically and an increase in school enrollment has mostly taken up the slack among young white men - but not so for young black men.

Our forthcoming report frames a set of solutions that build on public will, community supports, job creation, and education pathways to unlock the door to economic opportunity for this current generation of young black men.  For example, among other things, we recommend:

1.     Setting high expectations for our public systems that touch these young men and of our educational funding streams to adequately prepare and steward young black men to high academic achievement and labor market preparedness.

2.     Investing in aggressive outreach and dropout recovery efforts to reconnect those who have fallen outside the labor market mainstream to supported education and training pathways to labor market opportunity.

3.     Investing in job creation, subsidizing employment opportunities in the public and private sector, to provide early work experience to youth in economically distressed communities and to restore work as a norm for adolescent and young adult development. The experience with the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund and the ARRA Summer Jobs, each of which put more than a quarter of a million people to work, demonstrate the capacity of states and local areas to manage this at scale.

Look for our new report after Labor Day.  In the meantime, please see the fact sheet we have just published that draws on it.

If we do not act now, young black men in many low-income communities will continue to find themselves virtually locked out of employment opportunity.  The confluence of poor schooling; low education attainment; lack of early work experience or career exposure; over-zealous arrests and incarceration; and, employer reluctance to hire has rendered a substantial segment of black men unemployable from very early in their adult lives, with few options available to get back on track.  If we do act now, we have the opportunity to move back on the path to Dr. King's dream. 

This momentous occasion underscores our nation's imperative to address the problems faced by these young black men and redouble our efforts to clear their pathways to economic security.





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