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Disadvantaged Young Men - Youth Service as Good Policy
08 February 2006

Because the United States "can ill afford to have so many of its young people and adults be unskilled, unemployed, and thus unproductive," a new book from the Urban Institute Press tackles the thorny challenge of getting "disconnected" young men back in school or the workforce.

Peter Edelman, Harry J. Holzer, and the late Paul Offner present an array of policies to improve the educational and employment prospects of 2-3 million youth ages 16-24 who have been out of school and the labor market for over a year. The authors concentrate on young men, especially African Americans and Hispanics, because young women have made more progress in recent years and their prospects have been spotlighted in discussions of welfare reform and other social changes. Young men make up about half of the nation's disconnected population.

"By proposing bold interventions for fellow citizens who aren't the least bit popular with politicians, the authors have embarked on an arduous journey of policymaking and moral suasion," notes Hugh Price, past president of the National Urban League, in the foreword to Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men.

Suggested Policies Driven by Youth Characteristics, Economic Trends

The authors' action agenda flows from detailed analysis of the racial, ethnic, educational, and employment characteristics of disconnected young men. Troubling findings include:

  • Only half of African-American men ages 16-24 who are not in school are working.
  • Roughly one-third of young African-American men are in jail or prison, or on parole or probation, at any time.
  • Ten percent of young African-American men and 9 percent of young Hispanic men are disconnected from school and work for a year or more. Including incarcerated populations, the rates rise to 17 and 12 percent, respectively.

The authors' research identifies three key policy areas: education and training, financial incentives to work, and barriers facing noncustodial fathers and former prisoners.

Expand Education and Training

Edelman, Holzer, and Offner found that employment rates of young African-American and Hispanic men lag behind those of white men for many reasons, including poor schooling, discrimination, weak employment networks, negative peer culture, and a mismatch between where these young people live and where the jobs are.

The authors suggest that initiatives to improve educational attainment should be accompanied by efforts boosting occupational skills, early work experience, and labor market contacts among high school students who are unlikely to attend college. Specifically:

  • Proven programs, such as the Job Corps, Youth Service Corps, and Career Academies, deserve increased funding.
  • The federal government should continue to encourage the development of community-wide education and training systems.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor should create a new program to support employer-provided apprenticeships and internships.
  • The U.S. Departments of Labor and Education should commission rigorous evaluations of charter schools, alternative schooling, and programs blending high school and community college.

Improve Financial Incentives to Work

The authors note the decrease in labor force activity among less-educated young men since the 1970s, partly because of declining wages. In contrast, large increases in the earned income tax credit (EITC) for low-income custodial parents in the 1980s and 1990s improved labor force participation among single mothers.

Their recommendation: raise the earnings of low-income men gradually, so as not to discourage employers from hiring less-skilled youth. Specifically:

  • The federal minimum wage should be pegged to about 45 percent of the mean wage for production workers, which would raise the minimum wage to about $7.00 per hour.
  • States should raise their own minimum wages if the federal minimum wage is not increased, especially as labor markets tighten.
  • Publicly financed subsidies or tax credits can also raise the earnings of less-skilled workers.

The authors recommend several options, including:

  • A broad-based subsidy for low-wage workers that pays a portion of the difference between a target wage and all wages below that level;
  • A major increase in the EITC for childless adults; or
  • An extension of the EITC targeted to low-income noncustodial parents who are paying all or most of their child-support obligations.

Reduce Barriers Facing Noncustodial Fathers and Ex-Offenders

By age 34, up to one-half of African-American men are fathers without custody of their children, and an estimated 30 percent have been to prison. Strong evidence suggests that both of these factors discourage labor force participation. The authors propose a variety of remedies addressing the situations of young noncustodial fathers and ex-offenders:

  • Reconsider how child support orders and levels are established for low-income fathers.
  • Promote options to forgive outstanding child-support debts for low-income fathers who are making good-faith efforts to meet their current orders.
  • Encourage more states to pass income collected from noncustodial parents directly to their low-income families.
  • Increase employment assistance for low-income fathers.
  • Expand education, training, and work experience while young men are incarcerated.
  • Provide more funds to help former prisoners return successfully to society.
  • Set an aggressive evaluation agenda of school, employment, and other programs for young offenders.
  • Develop links between the criminal justice system and other institutions and establish clear incentives for these groups to monitor ex-offenders' progress.

"Beyond the grim demographic statistics, there is now a large and growing body of knowledge and expertise about what works to combat this blight on America's soul," says Samuel Halperin, founder and senior fellow, American Youth Policy Forum. "In this magisterial guidebook for policymakers, the authors have distilled their wisdom into practical suggestions for public policy."

Peter Edelman is a professor of law and former associate dean at the Georgetown University Law Center. Harry J. Holzer is a professor and associate dean of public policy at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow at the Urban Institute. Paul Offner was a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and a former Wisconsin State legislator.