With the announcement of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative last week, President Obama unveiled his first effort explicitly aimed at the social and economic dimensions of racial injustice after nearly five years in office. Its focus on improving the life chances of men of color is welcome and badly needed. But there’s an open question as to whether My Brother’s Keeper is structured in a way that can make any difference.
The truth is that given the limited goals of My Brothers Keeper it may be too unambitious for the task required. That’s because nearly half of black and Latino men in communities across the country are without work. The level of incarceration for black and Latino men is higher than the incarceration rate in many authoritarian regimes around the world with black and Latino men up to six times more likely to be jailed than whites. College completion levels for these men is the lowest of any other group in America.
But the way that My Brothers Keeper is set up makes it appear that we are at the beginning of a crisis rather than in the desperate throes of one. Its two main objectives—the generation of another study on the challenges facing men of color and the coordination of $200 million in private philanthropy in pilot programs in communities across the country over five years—underscore the point.
The reality is that the economic, educational and criminal justice disparities faced by black and Latino men have been studied exhaustively for the past 50 years. All the while the situation has worsened. That’s because the issues facing men of color are systemic rather than individual, and systemic problems require widespread remedy.
To that end here are four actions that President Obama can champion right now that we know can a big difference in the lives of black and Latino men.
1. Make Work Pay for Single Men.
Given the fact that black and Latino men are disproportionately employed in lower wage, hourly-jobs, too many work but can’t earn enough to live. That’s why there’s something called the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that’s designed to ensure that low-wage workers can make ends meet . Through an average lump-some payment of more than $2,000 each year it provides working poor families with the critical help they need to stay afloat. That’s how it manages to keep 10 million people out of poverty, half of them children.
The difficulty is that the EITC is currently designed for parents. According to the White House a single-person earning minimum wage is eligible for up to only $25 (PDF) a year in EITC help. This puts single men at an immediate disadvantage and it needs to be changed.
In a positive step this week, President Obama announced an expansion for singles, but it would require congressional action. In the meantime, the White House could also explore ways to begin to unilaterally enlarge and retool the program while it waits for Congress.
2. Break the School to Prison Pipeline.
Disproportionate school discipline is a key driver for both high levels of unemployment and incarceration for black and Latino men. As I’ve written before, students who are suspended are up to five times less likely to graduate. Each year the Department of Education collects detailed information about racial disparities in school discipline. This existing data could be used by the government to mandate that each of the thousands of schools who receive federal education funds create an action plan and a timetable to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline.
3. Transform Prisons Into Education Centers.
Six out of ten of the 2.3 million people behind bars are men of color. The lack of education is an important reason for why they’re in the criminal justice system. According to the National Education Association, eight of 10 of those behind bars did not finish high school.
The link between educational attainment and prison is why New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has proposed a program to fund associate and bachelor degrees in New York’s prisons. The governor points out that it costs $60,000 to incarcerate someone but only $5,000 a year to educate each prisoner all while “giving a real shot at a second lease on life.”
Those who earn degrees in prison are less likely to come back. A study by the Rand Corporation shows that those leave prison with a high school degree are 30 percent less likely to return and those with a college degree are up half as likely end up in the criminal justice system.
A call by President Obama for a similar effort on a national scale could make a big difference. And given the fact that he runs all of the federal government’s prisons, Obama could begin laying the groundwork for that to happen.
4. Focus Job Training Programs on Men of Color.
Another way to help remedy the job skills gap fueled by incarceration and educational barriers is to focus existing job training programs on black and Latino men. Currently the federal government spends $18 billion a year on job training programs.
As a report by Congress’ General Accounting Office details, many of the nearly 50 job training initiatives are scattered across nine governmental departments with most of their money sent to the states in the form of grants to fund uncoordinated efforts (PDF) at the local level.
One way to better organize these patchwork programs is to target them on those who need help the most. Some, such as those that concentrate on the disabled and Native Americans already do that. But President Obama could issue an executive order asking that priority be given to efforts that are directed at men of color.
These are but a few of the ideas of ways in which we can help black and Latino men right now in a big way. Others include dramatically expanding federal national service programs such as AmeriCorps which gives volunteers a stipend and future educational assistance to serve in country’s hardest-hit communities; ramping up school-to-work apprenticeships to ensure that when students leave high school they land good-paying jobs and opening housing, educational and health benefits far more widely to single men.
The bottom line is that we don’t need to wait five years— a time beyond President Obama’s term in office—to take dramatic action for those most at risk in America. The good news is that there’s no reason to do so.