Experts Explore Black-White Divide in Youth Employment

June 02, 2010 | Diverse: Issues in Higher Education |  Link to article

WASHINGTON - For decades, studies have consistently shown that Blacks lag behind Whites in education and employment, particularly among teens and young adults between age 18 and 24.

Using recent employment data in the context of the high school dropout crisis, the Urban Institute, a national public policy research organization, hosted a lively policy discussion Tuesday that examined the discrepancies in the time that it takes high school graduates and dropouts in that age range to connect to work or postsecondary learning opportunities. A panel of experts also discussed possible policy solutions.

The statistics came from a national survey of Black and White teens and young adults from 1997 to 2005. The young people were 15 to 17 years old when they were initially interviewed and 23 to 25 at the end of the study in 2005. In addition, they were virtually identical in measures such as neighborhood, family income, the number of parents in the household and their level of education, and youth engagement in risky behaviors.

"There's a long legacy of disparity between Blacks and Whites," said Marla McDaniel, a research associate at the Urban Institute. "Tracking the shifts and the growths and the narrowing of these disparities is a barometer for understanding how far we've come or how far we've yet to go."      

The median length of time that it took for Black and White high school graduates and White dropouts to attain full-time, steady employment for at least six months was one and a half years. For Black dropouts the median time was almost twice as long, at two and a half years.

When examining how long it took the youths to connect to school or work after age 18, McDaniel found that the period for high school graduates, regardless of race, was one month. Not surprisingly, the disparity was much greater for dropouts. White dropouts took three months after age 18 to connect to school or work, but for Blacks that period was five and a half months, or 83 percent longer.

Georgetown University public policy professor Harry Holzer, who also is an Urban Institute fellow, urged the importance of finding ways to keep young people in high school where they can earn a real diploma which holds more value than does a GED when seeking employment or postsecondary opportunities.

"Once we get and keep people in high school, I think we need to have much more effective pathways into the postsecondary world or labor market, or more likely, a combination of both of them," Dr. Holzer said. One such pathway, he added, is a high-quality technical education program that will prepare students for either option.

"We have good evidence on the ability of a high-quality technical education to really make a difference in the lives of these young people and I emphasize high quality," Holzer said. "I'm talking about career academies and tech prep, and high-quality apprenticeship programs that involve strong academics as well as occupational training and work experience so people maintain the option of getting good postsecondary even when they're getting some good labor market experience."

One critical but missing component necessary to closing the Black-White divide, argued Linda Harris, director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, is a political and public will to make the sorts of investments that would eliminate the need to come back to the same questions "decade after decade" of why young men of color and disconnected youth aren't thriving.

Harris offered several solutions based on her experience in the area of youth and work-force development policy, research and administration; things, she said, "that we know work and are documented in research."

First, there's what Harris called a comprehensive community strategy that looks at how systems that work use their money differently to invest in dropout recovery, re-engagement and creating systemic pathways such as the technical education programs that Holzer discussed. Communities should set goals and benchmarks and then be held accountable for the results.

Scale is also important. "You have to have programs that are of sufficient scale that we begin changing the youth culture, raising the horizons and competing with the lure of street activity, gang affiliation, etc.," Harris said.

Again, communities would play a vital role, offering safe havens and environments that counsel and encourage young people to explore options that both interest and challenge them, he said.

"If you build it right, youth will come," said Harris, pointing to the Youth Opportunity Grant program, which provided money to 36 communities. It served 92,000 youths who were predominately people of color representing 65 percent of the eligible out-of-school population.

"The young people lined up, they came and they wanted to participate. Communities can do this," Harris said.

Dr. William Spriggs, assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, said people who research, study and work on solving this disparity issue must recognize that even if the playing field is level in terms of skills, family background, education and work experience, Black youths still face significant barriers whether the economy is doing well or poorly.

"This is a very rooted and deep disparity. It's important for people to understand that if we don't start to work on things outside of the individual, that we're going to continue to see these disparities," Spriggs said. "We need to look at the structure through which people get connected in the first place."

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