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Thinking Big About Poor Young Men

The public is overwhelmed by budget deficits, shrinking public supports, and the inability of its government to compromise. In this climate, so-called minority issues seem like a distraction. But black and Latino men between the ages of 16 and 24 are profoundly more likely to be poor than whites, more likely to be unemployed or the victims of violent crime, and less likely to graduate from high school. This hasn’t changed since Lyndon Johnson first tried to address problems of racism and poverty, calling American Negroes “another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.” Forty years later, young black and Latino men remain in a state of crisis, yet government has been, on the whole, unresponsive.

Enter Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the City of New York, who assessed the situation earlier this month: “Young black and Latino men are not sharing in the full promise of America,” and announced an innovative public solution. His $127 million Young Men’s Initiative (YMI) has been called the “boldest and most comprehensive” plan to serve this population ever undertaken by a local government. Almost half of the total funding has come from the private philanthropies of two men, Bloomberg and his fellow New York billionaire George Soros. The program will seek to improve outcomes for young black and Latino men on four quality of life measures: education, employment, health, and criminal justice.

It is fair to say that both men expect results, but behind YMI lays countless failed efforts. Programs designed to help black men have been common at almost every level of government since the late 1980s. The first ever was convened by executive order in Ohio, when Governor Dick Celeste created the Governor’s Commission on Socially Disadvantaged Black Males. Since then, several others followed, including commissions in California, Louisiana, Chicago, Indianapolis, and the District of Columbia. The Congressional Black Caucus sponsored a regional effort called the New York/New Jersey State of the African American Male (SAAM) initiative.

So far, the result has always been the same: The commission issues a long report that reiterates dire statistics and offers recommendations for institutional and policy reform that are never implemented, underfunded, or lose political support midway.

Unlike previous initiatives, there are teeth behind YMI. The City’s multi-million dollar investment dwarfs all other previous commitments. The Ohio commission had an operating budget of $1.29 million for 2008-2009; the previous year’s budget was $792,000, and the Commission employed only 3 staff. Budgets and staffing numbers like these are standard fare. YMI’s funding is over one hundred times bigger; and is the biggest for any similar effort ever.

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