Fulfilling the Dream: Advancing Employment and Economic Opportunity for Low-Income Black Men

By Caitlin C. Schnur, Workforce Research and Policy Fellow, National Transitional Jobs Network
and Jonathan Philipp, Research and Policy Assistant, National Transitional Jobs Network


Fifty years ago today, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 demonstrators gathered on the National Mall for The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  While King’s speech is most widely hailed as a powerful call for racial equality, he also made important statements related to the need for economic justice.  King reminded his audience that a century after the end of slavery, black Americans still “live[d] on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” and too-often experienced horizontal “mobility…from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.”  Recognizing the interconnection between racial and economic inequality, participants of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom included among their demands federal support for job training; the full employment of all workers in “dignified jobs at decent wages”; a national minimum wage; and greater worker protections.  As Reverend King put it, these dreams for a better future truly were “deeply rooted in the American dream.”

At the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN), we also believe that rebuilding the foundation on which the American dream is realized involves opening doors to work and ending poverty for hundreds of thousands of American families.  Although this country has made strides toward achieving King’s vision, there’s still a lot of work to be done—especially around advancing the employment and economic status of black men.  For example, in 2012, black unemployment averaged 13.8 percent—much higher than the average unemployment rate for the total population (8.1 percent) and nearly twice the average unemployment rate among whites (7.2 percent).  At the same time, today nearly 3 million working age black men are living in poverty in the United States (a rate of more than 1 in 5, or 21.3%), struggling to make ends meet with median annual earnings of only $26,287.  As King said fifty years ago, “we cannot be satisfied” with this status quo.

In response to the clear need to open doors to employment and economic advancement for low-income black men across the country, the NTJN launched the B.MORE Project.  Drawing from this work, here are three policy recommendations that we strongly believe will help lift up low-income men of color and fulfill The Dream:

#1: Support Pathways Back to Work: The Pathways Back to Work Act is aimed at providing subsidized employment and Transitional Jobs for youth, the long-term unemployed, and low-income Americans, along with job training to get unemployed Americans back to work, strengthen communities, and benefit employers.  We strongly support the passage of this legislation, which will put at least a quarter million people back to work—including many unemployed black men. And we support other federal legislative efforts such as the Julia Carson Responsible Fatherhood Act aimed at establishing targeted Transitional Jobs alongside education and training programs for low-income fathers.

#2: Integrate Employment and Responsible Fatherhood Programming:  Many low-income black males are noncustodial parents and are part of the child support system, which serves half of all poor children in the country.  While many noncustodial fathers want to be involved with their children, they may lack the resources to provide financial support for their children.  Most unpaid child support is owed by these parents and for many the lack of steady income is a major barrier to fulfilling parental obligations.  Combining employment programming with fatherhood programming can increase participants’ earnings, increase child support payments, and lead fathers to assume a fuller parental role.  The Obama administration has supported demonstration projects and coordination with the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement to test iterations of the Transitional Jobs strategy that seek to provide noncustodial fathers with on-ramps to employment and help them meet child support obligations. The Administration could expand these programs, and the states could re-vamp their child support programs to incorporate Transitional Jobs programming.

#3: Make Work Pay: Fifty years ago, participants in The March on Washington asked for a higher minimum wage to advance economic justice for workers.  Unfortunately, as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) notes, value of the minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $1.60, which is about $9.44 measured in today’s dollars; the current minimum wage of $7.25 is 23 percent less than it was in 1968 in real terms.  It’s time to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation, a policy move that will help to reduce working poverty and inequality among low-income black male earners.

In his speech to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington, President Obama stated, “In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”  To support the NTJN’s work to advance employment and economic opportunities for low-income black men—and to make Reverend King’s Dream a reality—please visit our website, sign up for news and action alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like our Facebook page.  You can also contact the B.MORE Project Coordinator, James Jones, here.  As King reminds us, “We cannot walk alone,…[and] we cannot turn back.”


About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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