Billionaires' investment in young black men brings hope

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We live in an age of bad news: Rising unemployment, natural disasters and a political system so ridden with corruption, that policy initiatives are abandoned and social welfare programs take a backseat to the pride and prejudice of political power struggles.

But today’s announcement that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the billionaire financier George Soros have teamed up to aid African-American and Latino youth, is a testament to hope and goodwill.

The Young Men’s Initiative, as it is called, will overhaul how the city government interacts with the 315,000 African-American and Latino males between the ages of 16 and 24. The aim is to be pro-active: by addressing the much discussed, but rarely confronted, issues affecting this undereducated, over-incarcerated and underemployed minority.

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In an effort to fully acknowledge the ever-deepening disparities between the educational achievement and employment prospects of young African-American and Latino males with their white counterparts, Bloomberg’s program will focus specifically on closing the gaps.

For more than a generation, thousands of young black and Latino males have become victims of the system: starting with failing schools ill-equipped at retaining them, or effectively addressing family issues and combating peer pressure, many dropout at alarming rates, and pursue financial well-being through drugs and crime.

This inevitably leads to imprisonment or worse, and the vicious cycle is in motion. Those that survive are often relegated to low-wage jobs or shut out of the market completely due to a criminal past. Left with no options: the cycle continues, with African-American and Latino males re-entering the penal system at even higher rates.

To that end, perhaps the boldest aspect of Bloomberg’s initiative will be an executive order preventing city agencies from erecting barriers to job applicants with criminal convictions. The three-year program, backed by more than $127 million in public and private financing, including $30 million of the mayor’s personal fortune and a matching gift by George Soros, will incorporate dozens of city agencies and include measures to increase school-performance accountability.

In addition the Department of Probation will open five satellite offices in neighborhoods around the city, and will retrain probation officers to focus on decreasing recidivism.

Nearly $25 million will be used to expand Jobs-Plus by placing job-assistance services within the very public-housing projects where many of these young men live. Over $18 million will be allocated for mentoring, new fatherhood classes and literacy programs, while $24 million will go directly to schools that have a proven record in closing the achievement gap in high-school graduation. The city will also be required to “encourage and support young people in obtaining government-issued identification.” At a time of severe reductions in government spending, Bloomberg has managed to find the perfect way of financing much needed social programs: using personal wealth to invest in the public good. At a time where the African-American unemployment rate is 16.2 percent and recent Pew Research reports showing sharp declines in wealth for African-American and Latino families, these young men would easily be left behind.

The New York Times reports that the mayor recognizes the unfortunate truth that “blacks and Latinos are not fully sharing in the promise of American freedom.”

And the numbers support the facts: though crime has fallen and graduation rates increased across New York this past decade, African-American and Latino men, between ages 16 and 24, remain at a disadvantage.

They represent disparate numbers of those impoverished, arrested and suspended from school. Despite the fact that the population of young white, black and Latino men in New York are roughly the same, more than 84 percent of those trapped in detention and children’s and family services facilities are African-American and Latino. The statistics show no signs of changing, and only real solutions can address the problem.

Acknowledging the fact that many of these young men simply can’t afford to pursue education without compensation, the city will link paid jobs and internships to remedial math and literacy courses. And this becomes the central mission of the program: demonstrating the power of education as the pathway to prosperity.

Here is an open door. The question now becomes how programs like this can be replicated across the country, from New York to Chicago to Detroit and beyond. The ability to affect change that comes from the billions Bloomberg and Soros have achieved certainly makes it easier to invest in initiatives with such powerfully broad implications. But money is not necessarily a barrier in our communities.

Perhaps this example will encourage coalitions of wealthy, accomplished and motivated African-Americans and Latinos across the country to establish similar public-private partnerships. The need is evident; but the execution requires action and resolve.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.