Tackling Poverty and Unemployment: A New York Example

More people are living below the official poverty line ($22,314 for a family of four in 2010) than have been since the Census Bureau began publishing data on it, reports The New York Times. Over two and a half million dropped below this line last year, bringing the number of poor Americans to 46.2 million. A crumbling economy and shifting demographics are among the reasons for this increase, but according to economists, unemployment is the biggest issue, as 48 million people ages 18 to 64 did not work a single week last year.

While the effects of unemployment and a weak economy are felt by many, the hardest hit are racial and ethnic minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, whose poverty levels are at 27% and 26% respectively. Explained in The Future of Children volume The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies, of particular concern are nonwhite young men. In few locations is this more evident than in New York City, where one study of five boroughs found the poverty rate for black and Latino young men to be 50 percent higher, and the unemployment rate 60 percent higher, than that of their white and Asian counterparts.

According to the Huffington Post, one factor that might play a part in the high unemployment rates for these young men is the high percentage of racial and ethnic minorities now incarcerated. One in eight black males in their twenties is in prison or jail on any given day. Devah Pager, Princeton University professor and research associate for the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, reports that within one year after release, up to 75 percent of ex-convicts are still without work.

These figures represent a crisis that New York City Deputy Mayor Gibbs says demands an urgent response, “New York City is going to send a signal that the situation facing young black and Latino men requires the same kind of aggressive, cross-agency response that a natural disaster would demand, because fixing these outcomes is critical to the City’s health and future.” The “signal” he refers to is the initiation of a public-private partnership presented by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg early last month in an effort to cut down barriers to employment. The strategy, dubbed the Young Men’s Initiative, involves investments of over $127 million over the next three years into policies and programs that will connect young men in the City to educational, employment, and mentoring opportunities, and will include an overhaul of the Department of Probation, which supervises nearly 30,000 New Yorkers, most of whom are black and Latino men.

An important component of Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative, as highlighted by the Huffington Post, is new policy regarding the hiring process for City positions. City agencies are to prohibit questions about prior convictions from the initial job interview; only after this first stage will applicants be asked about their criminal history. They must still submit themselves to a background check, but their offenses will be examined in view of the job requirements.

In the past, some opposition has been reported for these so-called “Ban-the-Box” policies, which have been practiced in other states and major cities. Business owners may not consider it wise to invest resources toward applicants, only to find they have a criminal record and choose not to hire them. Still, the purpose of such policy is to help young adults get a leg up, many of whom are otherwise good candidates for some positions. As Washington works to tackle the nation’s unemployment in an effort to prevent more from slipping below the poverty line, could they benefit from looking to cities like New York as an example? The Future of Children’s Transition to Adulthood volume stresses the need to provide opportunities to those who are willing to work but have difficulty finding steady employment because of a criminal history or other circumstances. Some of these include extending the age of eligibility of youth-serving programs into young adulthood and moving from a set of independent systems into a single integrated system.