The U.S. is facing a national crisis. It is virtually guaranteed that if you are poor, male, African-American or Native-American, you have a disproportionally high likelihood of ending up in prison, unemployed, or both. In a new paper by my colleague, Adam Looney, and his co-author, Nicholas Turner, intended to analyze post-incarceration employment, the authors find that:
“Almost one-third of all 30-year-old men who aren’t working are either in prison, in jail, or are former prisoners…Boys who grew up in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution were 20 times more likely to be in prison on a given day in their early 30s than children born in top ten percent of families…Prisoners are also disproportionately likely to have grown up in socially isolated and segregated neighborhoods with high rates of child poverty and in predominantly African-American or American Indian neighborhoods.”
How did we arrive here? It is not accidental that the two demographic groups who have endured the most profound state-sanctioned segregation and deeply inculcated and brutal racism are the two groups today which have the poorest life outcomes.
It is not accidental that the two demographic groups who have endured the most profound state-sanctioned segregation and deeply inculcated and brutal racism are the two groups today which have the poorest life outcomes.
This crisis is therefore the consequence of these two histories. First, the fact that the overwhelming majority of poor African-American boys live in segregated and concentrated poverty is the direct result of residential redlining and related governmental practices that emerged during the New Deal era and continued well into the latter half of the 20th century. Native-American boys, too, often live in segregated tribal lands that are the result of an ugly and state-sanctioned history of appropriation, discrimination and neglect that is still alive and well today.
Second, to be male, poor, and either African-American or Native-American is to confront, on a daily basis, a deeply held racism that exists in every social institution. This experience is a direct result of centuries of vilification and pernicious narratives that portrayed African-Americans and Native-Americans as “savages.” The imagery of Indian “savages” was particularly prevalent in the 1820s and coincided with the Indian removal policies of the 1830s. And the stereotype of the violent African-American male is a long-standing one in the United States. The Jim Crow/eugenics ideology sharpened this stereotype with its focus on labeling blacks, particularly black males as “brutes” and “savage-like,” criminal, lewd, hypersexual, or predatory.
Today, we know the consequences of socially accepted racism. We know that African-Americans and Native-Americans are incarcerated at disproportionally higher rates than their white counterparts. We also know that black boys are much more likely to be legally disciplined for infractions at school. We know that poor African-American and Native-American men are less likely to be employed than their white counterparts. When it is socially acceptable to equate these two demographic groups with criminality and danger, it is acceptable to limit hiring practices for African-American and Native-American males, block off neighborhoods, deprive those areas of services and resources, criminalize and murder unsuspecting youth, and continue to see it as justified.
The fact that unemployment and incarceration rates are linked to race and childhood poverty, particularly for boys, clearly demands an intentional and focused policy solution. Poor children and poor African-American and Native-American boys, in particular, need to be supported and validated from day one through a variety of approaches.
How do we know that such policies could have life-altering effects? As Looney and Turner point out, poor children with similar profiles to those in their database, but whose families were able to move to higher-income neighborhoods experienced much better life outcomes than the young people in their dataset.
The nature of this crisis requires that we focus policy attention specifically on poor African-American and Native-American boys, developing something akin to a New Deal for them.
Most importantly, the nature of this crisis requires that we focus policy attention specifically on poor African-American and Native-American boys, developing something akin to a New Deal for them. The elements of that New Deal will have to be both of significant depth and breadth. State policies that use Medicaid as the entry point for a variety of social services, school-based wrap around services, housing vouchers for families with young children, and restorative justice programs are all examples of initiatives which, if pulled together in a comprehensive, systematic, and nationwide approach and then aggressively pushed through a responsible set of incentives at the state level, could be a robust first step to addressing the devastating consequences of childhood poverty for these boys. In addition, state economic development policies that are targeted to providing services and jobs in areas of deeply concentrated poverty are also worth pursuing.
A New Deal for poor African-American and Native-American boys? Anything less would be dishonest.