Last week, the Obama administration launched My Brother’s Keeper, a new initiative that will marshal the resources of a number of nonprofit foundations to address the unique challenges facing young African American men. As David Autor and Melanie Wasserman have observed, the rising prevalence of single parent families appears to have had particularly damaging effects for boys. Most single parent families are headed by mothers, and while the absence of a positive or stable male role model might lead girls to assume that they will have to assume child-rearing and income-earning responsibilities later in life, thus conditioning them to be more responsible, it might also lead boys to assume that they will play (at best) a secondary role. Roughly two-thirds (67 percent) of black children are raised in single-parent families, notably higher than the 52 percent share for American Indians, the 42 percent share for Latinos, the 25 percent share for non-Hispanic whites, and the 17 percent share for Asian Americans. (Moreover, there is reason to believe that men raised in single-parent families face elevated health risks.) The policy impetus for My Brother’s Keeper is clear. Young minority men represent a large share of the future of American workforce, and the fate of America’s wealth and power is closely tied to their well-being as a result. Conservative policy analyst Carrie Sheffield has written favorably of the new effort, noting its debt to Michael Bloomberg’s innovative Young Men’s Initiative, first launched in 2011.
So what exactly will My Brother’s Keeper actually do? The nonprofits the president has rallied have pledged $200 million over five years to study problems like a lack of school readiness and discipline problems, low rates of high school and college completion, and high rates of incarceration and victimization, among other things. The initiative will also aim to involve business leaders, religious leaders, actors, professional athletes, and others to deploy their influence and cultural prestige to address the problem. It all sounds very open-ended, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In May of last year, I raised the possibility that while President Obama’s domestic policy legacy might not amount to much, he is extremely well-suited, by virtue of his biography and his moral authority among black Americans in particular, to play the role of “moralizer-in-chief.” To prove the point, I noticed that support for same-sex marriage increased by 18 percentage points from a survey taken shortly before the president announced his support to one taken shortly after. This is not to suggest that Americans will necessarily follow the president’s lead. But it’s hard to deny that he is a very effective spokesperson for the importance of fatherhood. If Obama commits to making responsible fatherhood a central theme of his second term, he could have a deep and durable effect on American culture.
In an ideal world, the president would combine moral exhortation with efforts to make the labor market more rather than less inclusive. In fairness, the president has been open to the idea of more generous wage subsidies that would make work more attractive than non-work. But at the risk of churlishness, it is also true that less-skilled African American men, who represent a disproportionately large share of the ex-offender population, the long-term unemployed, are particularly at risk of being priced out of the labor market by large increases in the federal minimum wage, President Obama’s top legislative priority. Many other black men, to be sure, might enjoy wage increases as a result of a higher statutory wage floor, though it is reasonable to expect that they will also have to intensify their work effort. Other measures that raise the cost of hiring, like increased taxes on business investment and various new regulations, might prove particularly problematic for those on the margins of the formal labor market. Let’s hope the president is at least open to moving in a different direction.