A hand up, not a handout, for young black and Latino men

Blacks and Latinos were hit hard by the Great Recession, and governments are cutting social programs. Can private giving step in? Two billionaires are showing how.

Blacks and Latinos took the brunt of America’s Great Recession. Their wealth gap with whites is now at a record high.

And with large cutbacks in government social programs, there’s a greater need than ever for private giving to help these two groups.

That’s the reasoning behind a $130 million initiative in New York City by two billionaires, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and financier George Soros, to target young male minorities with innovative approaches to helping them succeed – as workers and as fathers. Each man is giving $30 million to the public-private project. (Mr. Soros already funds many such programs in other cities.)

Known as the Young Men’s Initiative, the three-year project is just the latest of dozens of programs started in recent years to focus on young African-American and Latino males – groups with dreadful rates of poverty, education, and employment.

In New York City, for example, black and Latino young men have a poverty rate that is 50 percent higher than white and Asian young men. They are twice as likely to drop out of high school. Nationwide, more young black men languish in prison than attend college.

And reaching them is particularly difficult. Many young black men don’t want to be stigmatized as needing help, or they want to appear tough or apathetic. Many don’t value education or they evade fatherhood responsibilities.

The New York program will try to get around such barriers.

Job recruitment centers will be placed in public housing. Probation officers will be stationed in poor neighborhoods and told to offer work and educational opportunities. Paid mentors will be offered to men on probation (and also middle-school boys). Former convicts will be favorably considered for city jobs.

Young men who take math and reading classes in the morning will be given paid internships in the afternoon. Public schools will be assessed on how well they succeed with teaching black and Latino boys.

The challenge of achieving such massive social change is daunting. The causes of minority poverty run deep.

“Blacks and Latinos are not fully sharing in the promise of American freedom and far too many are trapped in circumstances that are difficult to escape,” said Bloomberg. “Even though skin color in America no longer determines a child’s fate – sadly, it tells us more about a child’s future than it should.”

Restoring dignity to these men is the primary aim. Or as the slogan of the Urban League states: “I Am Empowered.”

Even among middle-class blacks, the recent recession was quite a blow. It erased their gains over the last 30 years. In 2010, the jobless rate for blacks with a four-year college degree was more than twice that for whites with college degrees, according to the Urban League.

And a study released last month by the Pew Research Center found whites now have 20 times the net worth of blacks. In 1984, when such data began to be collected, the ratio was about 12 to 1.

“Lifting blacks up is no longer a matter of getting whites off our necks,” wrote black scholar John McWhorter in 2004. “We are faced, rather, with the mundane tasks of teaching those ‘left behind’ after the civil rights victory how to succeed in a complex society – one in which there will never be a second civil rights revolution.”

Perhaps that “mundane” task requires more private givers and private groups to step up, as Bloomberg and Soros are doing.

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