An assist for young men of color?

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 28, 2014.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that an event launching President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative would take place at the White House on Thursday, February 13, 2014. The event was postponed to a later date due to bad weather.


The White House plans to make good on a single, isolated promise that President Barack Obama made in his State of the Union Address back in January:

"I'm reaching out to some of America's leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential."

The president was highlighting a demographic group that faces among the worst prospects in America for finishing school, staying out of prison, finding good jobs, and helping to support their families. The official unemployment rate for African-American men over the age of 20 is 12 percent, more than double the 5.4 percent rate of white men. The rate is 8.2 percent for Hispanic males.

At the White House event planned for Thursday, the president was to launch his  initiative, called "My Brother’s Keeper." The event was postponed due to bad weather, and a White House source said it would be rescheduled.

The Administration has been lining up commitments from foundations, corporations, community organizations and educators to study and address racial disparities in education, criminal justice, and employment outcomes for young men.

In his travels around the country stumping about this issue, President Obama has observed many mentoring programs. One that has impressed him is called Becoming a Man (BAM), run by the nonprofit organization Youth Guidance in Chicago public schools.

Richard Dickinson is one of BAM’s counselors. BAM operates in 39 Chicago public schools with seventh-to-twelfth-grade boys. Dickinson leads group-interaction sessions on school grounds to teach so-called ‘social-cognitive’ skills. These include impulse control, future-orientation, and conflict resolution. Counselors teach a set of six core values: integrity, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression, visionary goal-setting, and respect for womanhood.

Dickinson explains how the first—integrity—is crucial to future success in school and work.

"Integrity means being a man of your word, saying the things that you’re going to do and actually doing them, or at least trying to do them," says Dickinson. "That can only help to secure a job, keep it or create your own job."

The cost of the program is approximately $2,000 per student. Dickinson says nonprofits like Youth Guidance have to do the work—with funding from foundations and individuals and corporations—because the inner-city schools he works in don’t have the resources or expertise.

"They’re understaffed and under-supported," Dickinson says. "So there might be a school counselor on staff, but that individual isn’t really counseling, because of a variety of other hats they might have to wear every day."

Economist Jens Ludwig directs the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. Along with Chicago Public Schools and World Sport Chicago, the Crime Lab conducted a randomized clinical trial of 2,500 adolescent boys participating in a BAM program for one year. The study found that BAM reduced violent crime by at-risk youth by 44 percent. It also increased school attendance, engagement, and credits earned. Projected out to the end of high school, the program could be expected to increase graduation rates by 5-8 percent.

Ludwig says that based on the Crime Lab’s study: "Our estimates suggest that every dollar you invest in Becoming a Man may generate up to $30 in benefits to society—from increased graduation rates and reduced criminal activity."

Ludwig agrees with Dickinson that the challenges public schools already face in delivering academic learning—from remedial to college-prep— leave few resources to teach social-cognitive skills as well. That puts more burden on nonprofit educational and community groups to do the work, so that young men of color in poor neighborhoods can succeed in school, and avoid prison and violence.

Ludwig thinks President Obama’s initiative would help research and spread the best programs nationwide. "It has the potential to help us better understand what non-academic or social-cognitive skills we exactly need to help kids develop in order to improve their life outcomes," says Ludwig.

In the current political climate, Congress is unlikely to fund a big new federal program to deal with the challenges faced by young men of color nationwide. So President Obama is largely limited to the role of ‘convener,’ bringing together foundations, corporations, sports celebrities, educators and activists to support pilot projects in communities across the country.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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