The public is overwhelmed by budget deficits, shrinking public supports, and the inability of its government to compromise. In this climate, so-called minority issues seem like a distraction. But black and Latino men between the ages of 16 and 24 are profoundly more likely to be poor than whites, more likely to be unemployed or the victims of violent crime, and less likely to graduate from high school. This hasn't changed since Lyndon Johnson first tried to address problems of racism and poverty, calling American Negroes "another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope." Forty years later, young black and Latino men remain in a state of crisis, yet government has been, on the whole, unresponsive.
Enter Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the City of New York, who assessed the situation earlier this month: "Young black and Latino men are not sharing in the full promise of America," and announced an innovative public solution. His $127 million Young Men's Initiative (YMI) has been called the "boldest and most comprehensive" plan to serve this population ever undertaken by a local government. Almost half of the total funding has come from the private philanthropies of two men, Bloomberg and his fellow New York billionaire George Soros. The program will seek to improve outcomes for young black and Latino men on four quality of life measures: education, employment, health, and criminal justice.
It is fair to say that both men expect results, but behind YMI lays countless failed efforts. Programs designed to help black men have been common at almost every level of government since the late 1980s. The first ever was convened by executive order in Ohio, when Governor Dick Celeste created the Governor's Commission on Socially Disadvantaged Black Males. Since then, several others followed, including commissions in California, Louisiana, Chicago, Indianapolis, and the District of Columbia. The Congressional Black Caucus sponsored a regional effort called the New York/New Jersey State of the African American Male (SAAM) initiative.
So far, the result has always been the same: The commission issues a long report that reiterates dire statistics and offers recommendations for institutional and policy reform that are never implemented, underfunded, or lose political support midway.
Unlike previous initiatives, there are teeth behind YMI. The City's multi-million dollar investment dwarfs all other previous commitments. The Ohio commission had an operating budget of $1.29 million for 2008-2009; the previous year's budget was $792,000, and the Commission employed only three staff members. Budgets and staffing numbers like these are standard fare. YMI's funding is over one hundred times bigger; and is the biggest for any similar effort ever.
The plan is comprehensive in another respect: it includes young Latino men for the first time. Outcomes for young Latino men compare to those for young black men in almost every statistical regression. In New York City, 11 percent of young Latino men are disconnected from work or employment, compared with 16 percent of blacks; both Latino and black men have 4 year graduation rates below 50 percent; about 3 in 10 young black and Latino men live in poverty, more than 4 in 10 grow up without a father in their household. In every area except criminal justice (blacks outnumber Latinos by 2 to 1 in city jails), these two populations mirror each other.
For New York City, it's a problem that has to be addressed. Latino and black youth make up the majority of children under the age of 18 in New York, preceding the larger trend toward a majority-minority nation. With this demographic transition on the horizon, the plight of young black and Latino men is no longer a parochial ethnic concern. As Bloomberg recognizes, we will pay a price in declining economic growth and health if we don't educate and employ these young men.
The biggest change is perhaps the fact that the YMI won't just be a commission, but will operate with full weight of the municipal government behind its reforms. Public school success will now be measured, in part, by the performance of young black and Latino men. By executive order, city agencies are no longer permitted to ask about criminal convictions in the first stage of the hiring process. The Department of Probation is being reformed so that it treats young black and Latino men as clients rather than criminals, providing them with job supports, mentoring, and the opportunity to clean up their RAP sheets, correcting errors, sealing information that should not be publically available, and providing the outcome of cases (sometimes a case is dismissed, but employers assume the outcome was a criminal conviction).
Of course YMI will face barriers. First, Bloomberg did not consult with the City Council or make the YMI timeline public. The lack of publicity is bound to create unrest among advocates and communities of color. Second, it still left controversial "stop and frisk" policies unchanged - in New York City, black and Latino men are nine times more likely than whites to be stopped by police for any reason, and those stop and subsequent searches lead to arrests six percent of the time, the same arrest rate for whites. It also didn't address the high number of marijuana arrests of young minority men. Both of these policies bring young black and Latino populations into contact with a corrections system that, though under reform, is not yet very focused on rehabilitation.
Most important, though the city has reformed its own practices, it still needs to partner with the private sector for business opportunities to flourish. Experts agree that, until business owners are willing to hire these young men in larger numbers, their prospects will remain dim. Thus far, we have seen no plan from the city to encourage private sector buy-in.
Still, the YMI is more likely to succeed than any previous effort. The financial investments offer the possibility of sustaining them, the agency reforms could be enduring, and Bloomberg is putting the program under rigorous analysis to see what kinds of effects it's having. This is a real experiment in good government during an era of austerity. It deserves our rapt attention - and our support.
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