Although the last decade has brought unprecedented prosperity to many Americans, the picture has been decidedly mixed for young black men. Their crime rates have dropped, and their school enrollments have increased, but things are not going so well for young black workers. During the strongest economic expansion since World War II, while the overall unemployment rate fell from 7.5 percent to 4.0 percent, their employment situation improved only mildly (even as the proportion working or looking for work actually dropped).
Employment figures for all racial groups tend to rise and fall with the general state of the economy. However, while the rate for whites is relatively flat and the rate for Hispanics rises, the rate for blacks trends downward. By 2000 young black men were 23 to 25 points below the other two groups.
The picture is quite different for women. Young, less-educated black women lagged behind both whites and Hispanics during the 1980s, but they overtook Hispanics as the employment of all three groups rose in the 1990s due to welfare reform and other changes. The black rate went from 37.1 percent in 1991-1992 to 52 percent in 1999-2000. Young, less-educated black women now work at the same rate as their male equivalents, even though many are single mothers looking after young children.
The declining male employment cannot be explained by demographic changes. Indeed, both the average age and the educational level of these young men rose during this period, which should have increased their employment rate. Part of the problem may have been the large increase in female employment, particularly among African Americans (the female share of urban employment increased from 41.8 percent in 1979 to 46.5 percent in 1999-2000). We don't know whether this effect worked primarily on the demand side (young black women taking jobs away from young black men) or on the supply side (young black men feeling less pressure to work because more young black women were working), but either way the effect was likely negative.
A strong economy still makes a big difference, of course. But in the 1990s, the benefits of economic growth were offset by the long-term downward trend in employment. In other words, if the economy hadn't been as strong as it was, things would have been a lot worse.
Why were young black men hit so hard? One factor was the decline in manufacturing jobs. In metropolitan areas, where most young black men reside, blue-collar jobs as a percentage of all jobs dropped from 34.3 percent to 24.6 percent. Not all areas, however were equally affected. The nonemployment of young black males is much more serious in old industrial cities such as Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, than it is in new-economy cities such as Atlanta, Denver, and Tampa.
Another complex factor is crime and incarceration. The crime rate has declined over the last decade, which would lead us to expect increasing employment for young black males. Incarceration has continued to rise, but to the extent that this removes young men with poor employment prospects from society, it should increase the officially measured employment rate. On the other hand, once these young men leave incarceration, they re-enter society with very poor employment prospects. And it may be that the high level of black crime has made employers reluctant to hire less-educated black males of any age.
Yet another suspect is the set of child-support reforms enacted over the past two decades. While these changes have increased the financial contributions of absent parents to their families, they may discourage work among low-income young men, particularly those burdened by large support requirements. Indeed, while our society now heavily subsidizes the earnings of low-income parents through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other provisions benefiting the working poor, we impose heavy taxes on the earnings of low-income fathers who do not have custody of their children.
Whatever the precise mix of causes, we have a severe problem that cries out for remedy. President Bush's welfare-reauthorization proposal focuses on increasing marriage and raising work requirements for women, while Democrats want to strengthen child care and expand education and training. Whatever one's view on the relative merits of these approaches, we think equal attention should be paid to the plight of low-income men. We're not going to get far in increasing marriage rates or strengthening families as long as half of young, out-of-school black men are out of work.
What's needed is a major employment initiative directed at young men, particularly minority men. It would include work-oriented programs that integrate academic and occupational-skills development, as well as targeted training linked to local employers. This would be supplemented by community-service jobs, which emphasize skill acquisition and certification. Such a program is particularly needed for the 600,000 individuals who are released from prison each year and return to low-income communities. We need changes in our child-support system so that more of the money paid by noncustodial parents goes to mothers and children instead of into state coffers, and so that fathers who are laid off or incarcerated are afforded some relief. And young, unskilled men and women who are not custodial parents should receive an expanded EITC to encourage greater attachment to the workforce. (The EITC is a major reason for the large increase in work among poor single mothers with children in the past decade.)
None of these proposals is going to win anyone a lot of votes, but the argument for them is compelling. Many low-income mothers are getting their acts together, finding jobs, and leaving the welfare rolls. And they are doing all of this with little help from the fathers, who increasingly are left behind. It is time we focus on the men as well as the women. Two million individuals are currently behind bars, and two-thirds of African-American children are growing up with a single parent. We cannot do anything about either of these problems unless we reach the men. That's the next big challenge for social policy in this country.