This is part of Policy Solutions, a Wonkblog continuing series examining policies that work.

The troubles facing young black men in many American cities are bound up into such a complex knot that it's hard to imagine where to begin unraveling it. Inner-city schools frequently fail them. As do the high-crime neighborhoods where they grow up, and the police and justice systems embedded there. The changing shape of urban economies — which offer few of the firm blue-collar jobs their fathers and grandfathers counted on — has hurt them, too. So, too, has the discrimination that indisputably lingers in the job market.

As a result, the unemployment rate for black men in America ages 20 to 24 has remained more than twice that of their white peers. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, the homicide rate has been about 18 times higher for black than white men. Black men of all ages are six times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. And between incarceration and premature death, some 1.5 million black men in America are effectively missing from their communities.

In the face of such odds, policymakers have increasingly rallied around early childhood interventions that might alter the life trajectories of young boys well before they ever become young men. But that is, of course, not a solution that will help men of color already drifting around the edges of the economy today.

"There's a big bandwagon that says the best way to improve human capital for kids growing up in disadvantaged circumstances is to get them while they’re young," says Jens Ludwig, a professor at the University of Chicago and the director of the school's Crime Lab. "You can hear lots and lots of people going a half-step further than that and saying the only time you help poor kids is get them while they’re young. Get them by age 6, or you’re done."

Research into several novel new programs, though, shows that this isn't true. And if we scaled up more such interventions — in tandem with reforms to some of the barriers built in to the job market for these men — we might dent a problem that has fueled unrest in cities like Baltimore and that has drawn the focus of the country's first black president.

"The plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society — groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions, groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations," President Obama said last year when he announced the My Brother's Keeper initiative. "And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color."

When Obama unveiled the effort, he cited a program in Chicago called Becoming a Man. Jens, along with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern and Harvard universities, published a paper this week assessing that program and a few others in Chicago that teach minority teen boys an unusual set of skills: how to adjust their behavior when switching between worlds that demand opposing values of them.


President Obama visits with young men from the "Becoming a Man" program in Chicago. (White House photograph by Pete Souza)

"Lots of these kids are growing up in very disadvantaged circumstances that require things of them that are very different from what the schools ask kids to do," Ludwig says. Children who are taught by their parents to stand up for themselves in self-defense in rough neighborhoods, for example, are often given very different rules in the classroom.

"Telling a poor kid 'never fight' is the wrong thing to do," Ludwig says. "There really are situations, unfortunately, in these neighborhoods where sometimes you need to do that. That’s an example of a skill that a rich kid doesn’t need to have."

Disadvantaged boys may need to know, in other words, not only how to defend themselves but how to toggle between rules in the neighborhood and rules at school. "That’s a hard thing for anybody to navigate," Ludwig says. Better-off children, by contrast, are generally asked to follow consistent rules throughout their lives.

Becoming a Man tries to teach teens just that — not simply how to study better, or even how to manage anger, but how to replace gut reactions with situational awareness. In randomized control trials, the boys in these programs did better in school and had fewer violent-crime arrests.

That result suggests that we often misdiagnose the challenges that these boys face. We interpret their survival skills as bad behavior. We search for the source of the problem within young men themselves — why don't they study harder? value work more? — when it's often rooted in their environment.

In cities like Chicago, Ludwig says, it's not uncommon for boys to reach high school with third- and fourth-grade skill levels.

"You can implement whatever sort of accountability system you want in high school, or change the textbook, or have the teacher use yellow chalk instead of white chalk," he says. "And so long as that teacher is forced to teach ninth and 10th grade material to kids struggling with third- and fourth-grade material, they’re going to have a lot of difficulty."

Another program that he and other researchers have studied in randomized control trials tries to solve this problem using intensive, individually tailored education for each student. A program called Match Education, based out of Boston, deploys tutors — who are more cost-effective than full-time teachers — to work with students. Within Chicago public schools, ninth and 10th-gradr boys who received two-on-one math tutoring for an hour a day, every day, in the middle of the school day saw significant improvement in their math grades. These students were also less likely to fail classes in math and other subjects.

Other programs that have been evaluated, in Chicago and New York, suggest another line of benefit for boys this same age: Those who've been involved in paid summer job programs have been less likely to have violent arrests.

The challenges don't end, though, when these young men reach high school graduation, if they get there. For a variety of systemic reasons, they're still much more likely to struggle with connecting to jobs than young men from wealthier and white families. They're often geographically isolated from work, living in neighborhoods far from job centers. And they're isolated from contacts who know about jobs.

There's evidence, meanwhile, that employers are still more likely to select job applicants with "white-sounding" names. Men from disadvantaged backgrounds are at a further disadvantage with companies that rely on existing employees to refer new ones. And men of color, who are disproportionately likely to spend time in the criminal justice system, are often immediately written off in application processes that ask about criminal records.

Add to these challenges one final obstacle: The kind of stable, good-paying manufacturing work that was once available in U.S. cities to men without a college education barely exists any more.

"Those were lifelong careers — you could save money, you could buy a house, you could advance your family. And those have mostly disappeared," says Margaret Simms, the director of the Low-Income Working Families Initiative at the Urban Institute. "There’s sort of a cascading set of changes that make it harder for people to advance, even in the absence of these additional structural barriers."

These barriers mean that all the best education and summer-jobs programs alone won't resolve the obstacles facing young men of color. We'll also need programs that teach employers how to reach potential employees they haven't considered, or broader changes like "ban the box" laws that encourage certain employers to at least consider men with criminal records.

In the long run, Simms argues, we can't afford for all of these men to remain disconnected from the economy.

"The majority of children born today are children of color, and as they move up, if they are not successful, the country is not going to be successful," Simms says. "People should be jumping up and down and saying we should do something about this, for all of our sakes.”