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Young black men in New York City were hit hardest by the recession and while the overall economic outlook has improved, blacks continue to struggle despite the New York job boom.

Overall, the unemployment rate for blacks in the first half of this year was 9.2%, almost 3 percentage points higher than the city’s overall unemployment rate of 6.4% during the same time period. Data suggests the unemployment rate among black men is even higher than that of their female counterparts.

Statewide last year, the unemployment rate for black men was 2.4 percentage points higher than black female unemployment. That gap is likely to be comparable to the city level, says Michelle Holder, John Jay College Assistant Professor.

“It’s very clear whether you look at periods of recessions or recoveries, the higher your educational attainment is as a group, the lower your unemployment rate is,” says Holder.

In addition to educational attainment levels, Holder points to high incarceration rates for black males and its impact on job prospects as another potential causal factor for their high unemployment rate.

A 2013 report issued by the Fiscal Policy Institute suggests that unemployment can contribute to both health problems and criminal activity, suggesting a cyclical nature of unemployment leading to incarceration leading to future unemployment. The report also notes that such “effects are most pronounced for those who have extended periods of unemployment as young people.”

Advocates of the ‘Ban the Box’ initiative, a movement to remove the question of one’s criminal history from job applications, believe the recent passing of ‘The Fair Chance Act’ in New York City could help break that cycle. The legislation, signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June of this year, prohibits employers from inquiring about an individual’s criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment has been extended.

“I think employment is so closely tied to our identity as individuals and as a country that getting people back to work is one way to significantly reduce the offending but also to have people contribute to society,” says Glenn Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization committed to reducing the national incarceration rate.
But there is also the issue of outright discrimination, notes Holder. In a pre-recession study of race and the New York City labor market, young white male felons between the ages of 22-26 were found to be more likely to receive job offers or callback interviews than young black males of the same age with no criminal record. Noted the report, “These results suggest that employers view minority job applicants as essentially equivalent to whites just out of prison.”
Recognizing the unique challenges of black male youth, some organizations are concentrating efforts on early exposure to career paths to increase educational attainment levels. In 2007, The Children’s Aid Society began the African-American Male Initiative and currently works with 65 boys from the Harlem community of Manhattan.

“We really take the notion of college readiness and early exposure to potential career paths as one of the things that could potentially mitigate the disproportionate rates at which black males are represented in the underemployed,” says Clifton Watson, the program’s director.

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