The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 20, 2015

Creating employment opportunities for low-income African American men

May 20, 2015

Throughout this week, Urban Institute scholars offer evidence-based ideas for policies that can make a difference for communities in Baltimore and beyond grappling with inequality and injustice.  Although this series covers a lot of issues, we by no means address all the challenges that matter.

While many are heralding the drop in the national black male unemployment rate, which recently fell below 10 percent for the first time in seven years, joblessness remains much higher in many poor African American communities. For many low-income black men, especially in places like inner-city Baltimore, finding and keeping work is a constant struggle, never far from their minds.  

One of the reasons African American men have difficulty finding work is because they live in segregated communities that lack jobs. Baltimore is typical of large metropolitan industrial communities. In 2010, it ranked 16th among the top 50 US metros in terms of black-white segregation, with two-thirds of African Americans living in communities that are primarily African American.

Many of these African American communities lack job opportunities, and few people living there have connections to jobs outside the community. Schools in these areas frequently lack the resources to prepare people adequately for today’s jobs or are deemed by many employers to be inferior, leaving graduates at the end of the job-hiring queue.

Job applicants from these communities might not even make it into the queue if they have had an encounter with the criminal justice system. Many employers either ask about felony convictions on their job applications or use a service to check whether prospective employees have been arrested (even if those arrests did not lead to convictions). Newspaper accounts and crime statistics verify that African American men are more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system, sometimes solely due to the fact that they live in communities that are heavily monitored by the police, which means that these hiring policies have a larger effect on them than on other job applicants.

Helping these men secure steady employment at decent wages is not a mystery. We know how to change the outcomes, but to do so successfully requires a two-pronged approach: one that breaks down the institutional barriers that separate people from decent job opportunities and another that enables people to build the skills needed for well-paying jobs. 

Systemic change will require companies to review policies that disproportionately exclude people who could otherwise perform the job. Models for how to do this exist and can be adapted for companies in different industries. Regulatory changes would help facilitate these modifications. The National Employment Law Project has developed guidelines to help companies review their hiring policies with regard to applicants with criminal records. And the Federal Interagency Reentry Council has compiled information for employers and applicants about how to reduce barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

In some cases, finding steady work will require more training and better connections to prospective employers. Quite a bit of evidence supports the success of job training programs and workforce intermediaries in establishing strong links to work for their program participants. These programs range from career-exposure programs for disconnected youth to more formal training, such as apprenticeships.  While some of these programs exist in Baltimore and other large cities, they are currently not large enough to meet the needs of the community.

Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.