More Jobs for Young Black Men: What Will It Take?

When the next employment report is released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in early September, one thing is certain: employment rates among young minorities will still be shockingly low. In the most recent report, the unemployment rate among black teens stood at 37 percent – more than double the rate for white teens. The percent of the black teen population employed was just 20 percent.

At least partly, these numbers reflect a weak job market. But even in strong economic times, the jobless rates among young black men are disturbing. In the 1990s, employment grew strongly among young black women – due in part to welfare reform, the strong economy, and a range of new benefits for single working mothers (like child care subsidies and earned income tax credits).Yet employment rates for young black men continued their long slide downward.

Low employment among young black men is very costly – to themselves, to their families and children, and to the nation as a whole. For instance, low employment among men is strongly associated with crime, and at the national level, crime and prisons cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

What causes high joblessness among blacks? Their schooling is weak, and the labor market places more value than it used to on reading and math skills. The blue-collar jobs that always paid well for less-skilled men are disappearing, and those that remain pay less than they used to. While less-skilled Hispanics also face this problem, employers seem more willing to hire them – especially those who are immigrants. Informal job networks remain strong in immigrant communities but have shrunk in low-income black neighborhoods as fewer and fewer men work. Also, suburban areas with strong job growth are out of reach to many of those living in poor black neighborhoods, due to transportation problems and lack of connections.

As a result, many young black men turned to illegal activity – especially the drug trade – in the 1980s and early 1990s. But while crime rates finally fell during the latter 1990s, our prison populations kept rising. We now have two million people locked up on any given day in the U.S. – over two-thirds of whom are minority men. By some estimates, nearly 30 percent of all young black men have already been in prison at some point.

When they leave prison, their job problems are generally worse than when they were first locked up. On top of their poor skills, low work experience and substance abuse histories, most employers are now reluctant to hire former offenders – especially black offenders. State laws prohibit them from holding many kinds of jobs or even drivers' licenses. And the young men themselves have very little interest in jobs that offer them nothing but low wages, few benefits or chances for promotion.

Most of these men are non-custodial fathers, and their child support obligations also drive many out of the job market. When young men fall behind in their payments – as they certainly do while in prison – states can withhold nearly two-thirds of their wages for child support when they work. But, for low-income men, much of this money goes to the state (if their families have been on welfare) instead of their own children – so they see even less reason to hold jobs and make payments in the first place.

Here is the catch: we now quite heavily subsidize the work efforts of single mothers with children while we heavily tax the work of poor fathers, especially those who have been in prison. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that low-income mothers are working more these days while fathers are working less.

Can this cycle be reversed? Efforts to increase employment and prevent crime among young men must begin with school reforms to improve basic skills. In the high school years, we should link them to the job market through apprenticeships, internships, and the like. Their access to training in community colleges needs to be improved. And job training programs with proven records for out-of-school youth – such as the Job Corps and the Youth Service Corps – should be expanded.

But we also need to make low-wage jobs more acceptable to young men. An earned income tax credit – which was so successful at drawing low-income mothers into the job market – should also be available to poor fathers who are keeping up with child support payments. Perhaps the small credit for childless adults should be expanded as well, to encourage their attachment to the world of work.

And state policies that discourage work among poor fathers – especially those with criminal records – should be reviewed. Maybe laws limiting their work in some jobs (like child or elder care) make sense. But others restrictions are only punitive and should be eliminated. Child support orders for poor fathers should be set more realistically, and large arrears reduced in some cases.

While these policies will cost some public (and private) resources, doing nothing costs far more. We were willing to invest billions in the employment of low-income women in the 1990s. It is time to do the same for low-income young men.

Harry J. Holzer is a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute of Georgetown University.

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