Spotlight Exclusives

Improving Life Outcomes for Poor and Vulnerable Men as a Means of Combating Poverty

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In both public and private efforts to combat poverty, one often overlooked population is low-income men. To some extent this is understandable because men, on average, earn more than women and are less likely to be poor. But there are subgroups of men who are so disconnected from the economic mainstream that when left unaddressed engage in behaviors that either place costs on society, such as crime, or contribute to the poverty of others, such as failing to fulfill child support obligations.

One especially at-risk group is African-American men. According to calculations by Doug Besharov at the American Enterprise Institute, while the percentage of African-American men who are living in poverty has declined over the past three decades from 39.0% in 1968 to 27.6% in 2004 — that percentage is still appallingly high, especially when compared to white males (11.3%). The poverty rate for Hispanic males is also quite high at 22.6%.

To date, the primary interventions for low-income men have been prison and child support enforcement. Unfortunately, neither has been found to be particularly successful in improving the life circumstances of low-income men. There is even evidence that child support wage withholding can actually decrease employment among low-skilled, African-American men.

The fact that prison and child support enforcement have not been particularly effective in increasing the life prospects of low-income men should not be surprising. Both prison and child support enforcement are “after the fact” interventions in that both occur after the individual has done something that violates social norms — crime in the case of prison and failure to fulfill one۪s financial obligations to one۪s children in the case of child support enforcement. Moreover, neither is designed primarily to benefit the man himself. Rather, both are designed to benefit a third party — society at large in the case of prison and the custodial parent (and child) in the case of child support enforcement.

What is needed are new models for improving the life-circumstances of low-income men, models which focus more on prevention, rather than “after the fact” intervention, as well as on the needs of low-income men, rather than on their benefit to third parties. These new models would focus less on those with criminal records or outstanding child support obligations, and more on those who are “playing by the rules.”

Here are three ideas.

Build a World Class Vocational Education System. To be effective in helping low-income males become better connected to the economic mainstream, programs need to move farther upstream to help them avoid becoming disconnected in the first place. The greatest need is to help low-income males graduate from high school with marketable skills.

One reason why so many low-income males either do not graduate from high school or graduate without marketable skills is that high schools have essentially become a “one-track” system designed for college-bound students. College is certainly a worthy goal. Anyone, regardless of economic circumstances, who has the ability and desire to attend a traditional college or university, ought to be able to do so. It is a travesty that too many low-income youth continue to be denied this opportunity.

At the same time, however, we have largely under-funded alternate educational pathways, particularly career-oriented vocational education. In large measure this was in reaction to the abhorrent practice of “tracking” some might say “dumping” — low-income youth into non-college bound courses simply by virtue of their economic status, or worse yet, their color. Hence, today۪s high schools are largely designed for the college bound. But only about one-half of all high school graduates go to college, and of those that do, only about 25% graduate with a 4-year-degree.

Most high schools dedicate enormous resources, services and programs to students who are college-bound; far fewer offer high quality services and programs for those who are not. Moreover, there is evidence that the best vocational education programs are in schools located in more affluent, suburban neighborhoods, compared to schools in lower-income communities.

What is needed is to re-implement vocational education as a valued choice, so that those who wish to become electricians, plumbers, carpenters or welders, have a place to go to learn those skills and thereby access relatively well-paying careers. One particularly promising model is cooperative education, in which students earn academic credit for working with employers.

There is a risk that a renewed focus on vocational education will lower expectations for certain disadvantaged groups especially low-income, minority groups. One way to minimize this risk is to ensure the choice of vocational education is in the hands of the students themselves rather than adults. Another is to commit to building a world-class career-oriented vocational education system, in the same way that we talk about “world class” higher education. Government could help by funding the development, implementation and evaluation of stimulating, coherent and integrated career-oriented vocational education curriculum that lead to relatively well-paying careers.

Expand Apprenticeship Models. One model offering promise for helping connect low-income men to the economic mainstream is formal apprenticeships. Formal apprenticeships generally involving 2-3 years of “learning while doing” (and getting paid for it) combined with intensive supervision and class training. According to Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, there are approximately 440,000 apprenticeships in the U.S. at any given time.

Evaluations of formal apprenticeships have been extremely promising. Yet, the federal government only spends $20 million a year to support and expand the use of apprenticeships. Worse, formal apprenticeship models have been grossly under-utilized in low-income communities.

Government could fund and evaluate demonstration projects to expand the use of formal apprenticeships through partnerships between employers and non-profit organizations located in low-income communities. The non-profit organization could help recruit low-income workers into the program and provide them with upfront life skills training, while government could subsidize the costs of the wages of the apprentice for up to six months, after which the employer pick up the full cost of the program.

Invest in Community-Based Positive Youth Development Activities. Crime and lack of resources have led to the disappearance in many low-income communities of after-school and other positive youth development activities. Yet this is where children and youth can learn such important skills as teamwork, fairness, respect for legitimate authority, and the value of dedication and hard work all necessary behavioral traits for success in the workplace. It also is where children and youth growing up in difficult family circumstances can develop relationships with positive adult mentors who can help steer them away from the allure of the streets and gangs.

Government could help by increasing funding for indigenous community- and faith-based organizations that best understand the needs of their communities, but often lack the expertise or capacity to build sustainable efforts to implement meaningful positive youth development activities.


Focusing on the plight of low-income men is certainly a worthy endeavor. But the history of success working with this population is slight. But by helping youth develop marketable skills within a positive youth development framework, it may be possible to significantly improve the life prospects of low-income men minimizing the need for “after the fact” interventions. It is certainly worth a try.

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