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Cascade: No. 90, Winter 2016

Spotlight on Research: Making a Difference in the Lives of Young Men of Color*

The plight of young men of color, whether it is in education, the labor market, or involvement in the criminal justice system, has been and remains a challenge. The difficulties in the various areas of these young men’s lives have been well documented over time. The problems of young men of color have also engendered numerous responses. Policy initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels as well as endeavors by foundations have been undertaken to address these dilemmas.

Unfortunately, the efforts to assist young men of color have waxed and waned over the years, and valuable lessons have not been learned from previous interventions to shape improved policies and programs. Christopher Wimer and Dan Bloom attempt to rectify the situation by documenting statistically sound successful strategies and promising interventions.1 The following is a summary of their findings.

Marvin M. Smith, Ph.D.

Background

The statistics on the difficulties experienced by young men in general and young men of color in particular have been well chronicled. Some of the highlights from the report include the following: “The employment rate of male teens aged 16 to 19, for example, has plummeted over the past 35 years. In 1978, the employment rate for this group stood at 51.8 percent. In 2009, it was 28.1 percent, falling by nearly half. For teenage males of color, these rates are even lower. Hispanic male teens had an employment rate of 24 percent in 2009, and the rate for black male teens was even lower at just 14 percent.” Although the low employment rates of teens are alarming, the dismal employment experiences of teens of color follow them into their 20s and 30s. Not too surprisingly, the earnings of young men of color have also waned over the decades.

The labor market troubles of young men of color are exacerbated by their involvement in the criminal justice system. “In 2010, black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in prison or jail, while Hispanic men were more than two-and-a-half times more likely to be incarcerated.”2 Incarceration can have ancillary effects on young men of color as well. Their job possibilities tend to be adversely affected by their criminal records. Moreover, incarceration can interfere with their educational attainment or the accumulation of work experience. Wilmer and Bloom point out that, although the school enrollment of young men of color has been increasing, only a small percentage enroll in and graduate from postsecondary education. Unfortunately for some young men of color, today’s economy places a premium on educational attainment as a precursor for success.

Programs That Work

In reflecting on the quandaries faced by young men of color, the authors observed that “a growing number of young men of color have become disconnected from the positive systems, institutions, and pathways designed to help people achieve success — high school diplomas, enrollment in and completion of postsecondary education or training, and ultimately career ladders leading to well-paying jobs.” Fortunately, some interventions have made a difference. The authors note, however, that despite the disparaging statistics concerning young men, not all young men of color are at a total disadvantage. Some are faring rather well, and some need only a little assistance to succeed. Yet others require a great deal of support in order to thrive. As mentioned previously, a number of programs have been implemented to contend with the dilemmas facing young men of color. In reviewing the efforts that have been undertaken, the authors considered only interventions that have been successful or show a great deal of promise.3 They further narrowed their focus to programs that were evaluated by high-quality, randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The programs that the authors review are divided into two categories: (1) proactive approaches, which include “preventive interventions aimed at youth who are still connected to positive systems (like schools or community colleges) that seek to enhance their success in moving through those systems and on to productive careers in the labor market,” and (2) reconnection approaches, which involve “interventions targeting those who have disconnected from positive systems, who have dropped out of school or the labor market, or who have been sent to jail or prison and are relying upon the second-chance system to help reintegrate into their communities.”

Proactive Approaches

Two types of programs are considered under this approach. The first type of program covers interventions for young men of color who are of high school age and serve to assist their preparation for postsecondary education or provide them with skills that will be beneficial early in their labor market experiences. The second type of program focuses on youth and young adults who are currently involved in postsecondary or job training settings and is designed to assist them in improving their outcomes in the labor market.

High School–Focused Programs. The authors identified a few programs that were successful in addressing the unsettling fact that “young men of color are less likely than their peers to graduate from high school and go on to enroll in postsecondary education or find a job.” One of the most effective interventions is Career Academies. This program targeted low-income youth and encouraged them to remain engaged in school by offering them instruction in small learning communities while also providing them with valuable information to facilitate the transition to either college or employment. Career Academies are assisted in this task with the aid of local employers who “provide concrete work-based learning opportunities.” The efficacy of Career Academies was evaluated by a random assignment study conducted by MDRC (a nonprofit research organization).4 The study included both young men and women, and around 85 percent of the study’s participants were Hispanic or African American. The results of the study were especially noteworthy for young men. According to the MDRC report, Wimer and Bloom noted that “in comparison with a control group, earnings for young men participating in Career Academies were nearly $30,000 higher over the eight years following scheduled graduation from high school.”5 Moreover, the participants were more likely to live independently of their parents and live with a spouse or partner and their children.

Another program that focused on at-risk high school students — including many young men of color — and yielded some success was New York City’s Small Schools of Choice. The results of an RCT assessment of the program6 found that the participating schools raised the students’ graduation rates by nearly 10 percentage points and improved the students’ readiness for college by increasing the passing rate for the English Regents Examination.7

Postsecondary Programs. Several programs were recognized as being effective in assisting the progress of young men of color through postsecondary education and training. One intervention noted by Wimer and Bloom was a “performance-based scholarship program” at a community college in Arizona. Students in the treatment group were given $4,500 in scholarships contingent on their meeting a number of benchmarks. The findings from a random assignment study indicated that, compared with the control group, participants were more likely to increase net financial aid (less reliance on loans), enroll full-time, stay in college for a second semester, and earn more college credits.

However, not all youth desire or have the ability to succeed in college. But they still could benefit from the acquisition of marketable skills to help them succeed in the labor market. Examples of an effective intervention to achieve this task are the Sectoral Employment Training programs. These programs tailor the job training to meet the needs of local industries and employers and afterward connect trainees with the opportunities offered by employers. A randomized evaluation of one of these programs found that, relative to the control subjects, participants were more likely to earn (29 percent) more, work more consistently in higher-wage jobs, and work in jobs with better benefits.8,9

Reconnection Approaches

The authors found a number of interventions that reconnect young people to education and training. The most visible of these interventions is the federal Job Corps program. This program “provides intensive, (mostly) residential and job training services to disadvantaged youth aged 16 to 24.” An evaluation of a randomized study of the program found that participants increased the completion of General Educational Development (GED) and vocational certificates, increased short-term earnings, and reduced criminal activity.10

Another noteworthy intervention is the Center for Employment Opportunities transitional jobs program. The program in New York City “offers former inmates, who are predominately men of color, temporary, paid work in addition to other services (for instance, fatherhood or parenting skills classes) to help them avoid recidivism.” This program yielded a reduced reincarceration rate, a reduced probability of arrest, and a temporary increased employment rate.

Concluding Note

Only a few of the programs that the authors have found to be effective in improving the livelihood of young men of color are discussed here. For more on these programs and the findings on the efficacy of programs not covered here, see Wimer and Bloom’s report. According to the authors, knowledge of the successful programs and their interworkings is critical in the planning of future interventions.

  • * The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia or the Federal Reserve System.
  • 1 Christopher Wimer and Dan Bloom, Boosting the Life Chances of Young Men of Color: Evidence from Promising Programs, New York: MDRC, 2014, available at http://ow.ly/VFpkR. External Link
  • 2 Information obtained from Bruce Drake, Incarceration Gap Widens Between Whites and Blacks, Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2013.
  • 3 Only some of the former will be considered here. Also, it should be pointed out that “while some of the interventions discussed [here] focus exclusively or predominately on young men of color, others are more broadly focused but have either consistently or especially positive outcomes for this group.”
  • 4 James J. Kemple, Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Work, Education, and Transitions to Adulthood, New York: MDRC, 2008, available at http://ow.ly/VLZBv. External Link
  • 5 See Kemple, 2008.
  • 6 Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman, Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City, New York: MDRC, 2013, available at http://ow.ly/VLXbC. External Link
  • 7 Passage of this examination exempts incoming students at the City University of New York from remedial English courses.
  • 8 Sheila Maguire, Joshua Freely, Carol Clymer, et al., Tuning in to Local Labor Markets: Findings from the Sectoral Employment Study, Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures, 2010, available at http://ow.ly/VLXEW. External Link
  • 9 Although this program did not focus solely on young men of color, African Americans and Latinos made up 81 percent of the participants, and about half were young adults 18 to 26 years of age.
  • 10 Peter Z. Schochet, John Burghardt, and Sheena McConnell, “Does Job Corps Work? Impact Findings from the National Job Corps Study.” American Economic Review 98:5, pp. 1864–86