By Robert Cherry
The Trayvon Martin killing has appropriately focused our attention on the plight of young black men, many of whom live in the shadows of mainstream society. While public discourse has centered on racial biases in the criminal justice system, we must not ignore their terribly low employment rates. In 2012, only 15.1 percent of non-incarcerated black men aged 16 to 19 and 33.8 percent of those aged 20 to 24 years old were employed. For white men of the same ages, the comparable work levels were 27.7 and 67.9 percent or about twice as high. As long as so few young black men are working, society will inevitably engage in harmful racial profiling against them. Designing and implementing policies that will raise their work levels should be a priority.
Many black men are not hired because of informal hiring practices. While Equal Employment Opportunity regulations are effective in labor markets for professionals, for jobs that do not require four-year college degrees they recruit through the social networks of their current employees. This tends to suppress black employment because white and immigrant workers have much stronger networks than black workers. The Labor Department should do more to reduce the discriminatory effect of these informal hiring practices.
In addition, most firms automatically eliminate applicants that have criminal records. There is increasing evidence that when employers wait until after the interview process to conduct background checks, it dramatically increases the share of workers with criminal records who are hired. Many government agencies have “banned the box” (removing questions about criminal history from job applications). The Labor Department should encourage its implementation in the private sector as well.
These changes in hiring practices would increase employment rates of black men without four-year degrees. Even more important in the long run, however, would be changes in educational policies. Only one half of black men graduate high school and only one-third of those entering college receives four year degrees. The employment rate of black men would be substantially increased if we encouraged more students to enter occupational training programs in high schools and community colleges.
A question of education
Many adolescents enter the ninth grade with weak academic skills. There is no magic pill that would enable even a modest share of these students to achieve four-year college degrees. For these youth, high school curricula that requires trigonometry or physics can only result in higher dropout rates, as does the focus of community colleges on transferring students to four-year colleges.
High school vocational programs can make a crucial difference in these students’ long-term prospects, by providing immediate career goals and by enhancing the soft skills associated with successful employment, including team work habits, conflict resolution skills, and the cultivation of valuable social networks. Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs have increased educational attainment, especially when linked to community college occupational programs. Unfortunately, too many high school and college counselors and faculty stress “success” stories that end with the completion of a four-year college degree, even among students for whom this goal is highly unrealistic.
Black men with criminal records are disproportionately excluded from many employment opportunities. Many also have substantial child support arrears. These factors cause too many black men to shun on-the-books employment and instead work sporadically in the underground economy. While we may sympathize with their plight, these men need to take responsibility for themselves and their families. Lawrence Mead has proposed paying a higher wage subsidy to these men provided that they work regularly and pay their child support judgments. After completing training programs, jobs should be created if private-sector ones are unavailable. Society needs to make clear that these men have a way forward provided they show steady commitment to legal jobs.
Addressing single mothers
Almost three-quarters of black children are born to unwed mothers and a recent study finds that young men are less likely to flourish when raised by single mothers. We should not however, adversely judge these mothers given their partners are often unreliable providers. More low-skilled men can succeed as fathers and husbands only if they work more regularly.
Low marriage rates are also exacerbated by the large financial penalties many working single mothers must pay for getting married. Government now provides them with substantial income supports. However, virtually all those benefits are lost if she marries a working partner. The way the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is structured, she could lose $3,200, or even more if she also qualifies for state EITC.
There have been a number of proposals for eliminating at least the federal component of the marriage penalty. One of them is my New Mothers Tax Relief proposal, which would virtually eliminate the federal marriage penalty by extending full EITC benefits to families with incomes of $40,000 and then slowly reduce them. In addition, about $2,000 in new benefits would be extended to lower middle class married couples with pre-school aged children. These families often face financial pressures when they have very young children; pressures that can cause marital tensions and disruptions.
These employment and family formation proposals may be perceived as too incremental by the ideological Left and, despite their very modest costs, they may be dismissed as too expensive by the Right. For those in the broad middle, however, they should be seen as vital first steps in bringing black men out of the shadows. Surely, policies that can help improve their lives and those of their children should be a part of any agenda that arises from the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
Robert Cherry is Broeklundian and Stern Professor at Brooklyn College. Many of these policies are detailed in his book with Robert Lerman, "Moving Working Families Forward: Third Way Policies that Can Work" (NYU Press 2013).