Feel the Heat! The Unrelenting Challenge of Young Black Male Unemployment

In the current labor market, many youth and young adults are struggling to find work.  Far too many are either unemployed or working in low-wage jobs with minimal hours, unable to take care of themselves and their families.  The long-term employment mobility and earnings of youth and young adults will be severely impacted without early work experience and adequate participation in the labor market during these critical years.  Yesterday’s jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor underscores that the entire labor market is still struggling to recover. But the challenges for black men are particularly stark; the unemployment rate for black men ages 16 and older is 15 percent, more than twice the national average.  The rate is even higher for black men ages 20 to 24 (25.8 percent) and teens (40.4 percent).

Advocates and researchers have highlighted the issue of unemployment among youth and young adults for over a decade-even before the Great Recession.  adly, for some population groups, the struggle has far older roots.  Unemployment among young black men is historically much higher than their white counterparts.  Since 1972, the rate of employment for black males ages 20 to 24 has dropped by 23 percent, with just over half of black males in this age group currently attached to the labor market.  For black male teens, work opportunities are nearly nonexistent.   One in five black males ages 16 to 19 are employed-down from 31.4 percent in 1972.

In Feel the Heat: the Unrelenting Challenge of Young Black Male Unemployment, CLASP proposes several strategies to help turn the tide for the thousands of young black men who are under- and unemployed.  The report also analyzes employment trends and suggests two critical influences that are central contributors to black male unemployment: low education attainment and over-representation in the criminal justice system. 

Feel the Heat proposes practical solutions that will require commitment from many different partners:

  • Shift the paradigms, perceptions, and programming of our education and youth-serving systems. Young black men must be recognized for their potential to become college graduates, professionals, skilled workers, and civic leaders. Staff in the various education and youth-serving systems must be adequately trained to support young men on their pathway towards these outcomes.
  • Focus job creation efforts on subsidized opportunities to work, earn, and learn. Subsidized employment options in the public and private sector, summer and year-round jobs, on-the-job training, and transitional jobs are all employment strategies that provide young black men with little work experience exposure to the workplace, open doors to viable industries and occupations, and provide opportunities to earn wages and gain skills.  
  • Leverage public funding streams and federal legislation. Federal and state resources should be directed at creating a policy, legislative, and regulatory environment that is committed to addressing young black men’s employment, education, and social needs and provides incentives and resources at scale to actualize that commitment.
  • Focus efforts on reducing the over-criminalization of adolescent behaviors. Replace harsh school discipline and zero-tolerance arrest policies and practices with developmentally appropriate strategies that put youth on positive pathways and expand state and local efforts that curtail the indiscriminate use of criminal background checks to deny employment opportunities to a large number of black men.
  • Build pathways and pipelines to occupations in high-demand industries. Business and industry must work together to build pipelines that connect youth from low-income communities to good jobs in growing sectors of their local economy.
  • Increase public will and leadership at all levels. Key leaders at all levels must raise attention to this issue, call for action, invest in resources, and generate public will. Advocacy is essential from the White House and federal agencies, governors and mayors, advocates and community leaders, and young black men themselves.
  • We have a long way to go ensure equal opportunity for young black men.  As Mayor Michael Bloomberg remarked upon the launch of New York City’s 2011 Young Men’s Initiative, “Even though skin color in America no longer determines a child’s fate, sadly it tells us more about a child’s future than it should.”