Skip to main content
man sitting outside at table
How We Rise

6 policies to address social problems affecting Black boys and men

Editor's Note:

This blog summarizes the November 19, 2020, event "Breaking the cycle: Overcoming the challenges faced by Black boys and men."

Last month, the Center on Children and Families and the Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative hosted an event to review the unique situation of Black men in the United States and to discuss possible policy directions for improving their social and economic outcomes and opportunities. The unique challenges facing Black boys and men require a specific set of policy responses, from the earliest days of life through adulthood.

A key theme of the event was that policymakers must pay particular attention to the intersection of institutionalized racism and sexism in society and they must be intentional with their support for Black boys and men. Anything less than systemic change will allow the current system to continue to function as it was originally designed—to the detriment of Black men. To that end, the experts identified six key policy areas to systemically address the challenges Black boys and men face:

  1. Criminal justice reform: To truly address the social issues problems affecting Black boys and men, there must be significant reform to the criminal justice system. Black men are drastically overrepresented in the prison population, accounting for 32% of the prison population but only 6% of the overall U.S. population. They are five times more likely to be incarcerated during their lifetime than white men and they are more likely to serve longer sentences than white men (on average, 19% longer). This reality has multiplicative effects on the life chances of Black men. They face barriers in finding employment and housing, many lose the right to vote, and many lack access to social services, including federal student aid. All of this taken together reduces the economic opportunities available to Black men and hinders their role in social and family life. To address these obstacles, criminal justice reform must be made a policy priority. The objective should be first, to reduce the number of Black men behind bars and second, to improve re-entry conditions.
  2. Improving the education system: As compared to Black women, white men, and white women, Black men have lower levels of educational attainment. Only about 28% of Black men (aged 25-29) have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while about 30% of Black women, over 40% of white men, and nearly 50% of white women do. Comparatively, Black men have fewer opportunities to receive higher education because those with a felony record face limited access to federal student loans. Moreover, many of the service providers within the educational system do not cultivate the full potential of Black male students. This includes grading biases, higher suspension and expulsion rates, higher rates of in-school arrests, lack of Black male role models within the school, and other forms of overt and covert racism. To improve the economic outcomes for Black men, there needs to be a policy response to these educational disparities. First, federal student loans should be made available to those with a felony conviction because it will provide many Black males with the opportunity to further their education. Second, the infrastructure of the education system should be improved to better support Black male students so that they can achieve their full academic potential.
  3. Improving employment rates and opportunities: On average, Black men experience higher unemployment rates, lower labor force participation rates, and lower earnings than their white male counterparts. These trends are not only indicative of lower economic power, but also lower access to quality healthcare, and fewer social connections. Dr. Rashawn Ray noted that there are about 1.5 million Black men missing from social life entirely. To address this, policy should promote better employment opportunities for Black men. As a starting place, improving educational outcomes for Black boys and men will consequently improve their chances in the labor market. But beyond that, policy should aim to match unemployed Black men with gaps in the labor market. Most prominently, there is rapid growth within the HEAL sectors (health, education, administration, and literacy) and a lack of Black men in these roles. Policy should respond by providing scholarships and other incentives to encourage more Black men to become nurses, health aides, teachers, social workers, and other similar professions.
  4. Place-based policies: In 2017, 26% of Black households lived in high-poverty neighborhoods as compared to just 5% of white households. High-poverty neighborhoods are typically characterized by poorer quality schools, less access to jobs, social networks, and health care, and higher rates of crime, pollution, congestion, and noise. Moreover, evidence suggests that boys tend to be more sensitive to their environment growing up, which often materializes in behavioral issues, lower educational attainment, lower earnings and more. Therefore, to address some of these adverse outcomes for Black boys and men, there should be greater investment in neighborhoods. Effectively designed and implemented place-based policies can improve the chances for Black men and their families, and ultimately restore communities. Using the opportunity zone model, these policies can provide neighborhoods with greater resources and invest money in areas that need it. But as Dr. Sean Joe noted, they need to better facilitate opportunity structures within the region and not for external actors (e.g., developers).
  5. Mentorship programs: Mentorship programs (such as the Mentoring Alliance led by Dr. Sean Joe) for Black boys and men have been a vital part of strengthening connections within a community. Providing young Black boys with access to a Black male role model has the potential to benefit them across several areas, including academic performance, mental health, social and emotional well-being, and preventing risky behaviors. While mentorship programs should be promoted through public policy (i.e., greater investment), the scholars emphasized that the approach must be deliberate. Specifically, Dr. Rashawn Ray emphasized that mentors must exhibit four qualities: positive, academic, accessible, and visible. Black boys should be able to see and touch successful Black men. Richard Reeves added that they should be durable because mentors that come and go often do more harm than good. And finally, Dr. Sean Joe commented that there must be a shift away from “savior-ship” to sponsorship. Black men must be willing to sponsor Black boys into opportunities (e.g., jobs) to make a difference in their lives.
  6. Reparations: The final policy area suggested during the panel discussion were reparations to be paid to American descendants of slavery. The racial gaps present in wealth, income, housing value, educational attainment, health status, employment, incarceration rates, and more are all the result of deep racism within the U.S., stemming from the egregious act of slavery. Reparations can be used to correct this injustice and to reduce the disparities that remain pervasive in society. During the conversation, Dr. Rashawn Ray said that reparations are the only way to deal with racism in America and that the country must “provide restitution for the centuries of the way that systemic racism has operated in our country.” While there is momentum on some national level reparation policies, Richard Reeves suggests that reparation payments at the local level are also viable. The policy of reparations—including how they are issued, how they are financed, and at what level—must be explored.

Get daily updates from Brookings