We should be our brothers' keeper

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: A White House program aimed at helping young African-American and Hispanic males has merit

One initiative by the Obama administration that has been overshadowed by world events has been the program he announced in late February called My Brother’s Keeper.

The idea is an ambitious one. It is an attempt to improve the prospects of African-American and Hispanic boys by helping them get into a position for opportunities that can be elusive.

Part of that stems from basic skills such as reading proficiency. Across the board, experts point to a children who are unable to read at a third-grade level when they are in the third grade as a sign of problems down the road, both in employability and in staying out of trouble.

Of the white boys entering the fourth grade, the White House says, just more than two out of five are reading at a proficient level. Having 58 percent of white boys reading below proficiency is bad enough, but the figures are worse — much worse — for African-American boys, with 86 percent not reading proficiently. The number is only a little better for Hispanic boys, 82 percent of whom are reading below level.

The problem is that once a child reaches the fourth grade, it becomes increasingly difficult for that student to catch up if he or she has fallen behind on reading skills. There’s a domino effect that pulls down grades in other areas, since reading is the fundamental building block for learning. Without intervention, the risk of dropping out of school becomes greater as frustration builds.

Little wonder, then, that the percentages also are disproportionately high for blacks and Hispanics who are unemployed or — even worse — imprisoned for breaking laws. They’re also six times more likely than a white male of being the victim of a homicide. In fact, the White House says, victims in half of all U.S. murders in a given year are African-American or Hispanic males.

None of this contributes to a better country, state or community.

President Barack Obama is using a My Brother’s Keeper Task Force to address the situation. That group is being asked to develop proposals for federal policies, regulations and programs that will push these at-risk kids toward more positive outcomes; recommend incentives for the adoption of strategies and improving those outcomes; create an online portal for spreading the word about successful programs and practices; develop a Department of Education website to assess critical indicators for black and Hispanic boys; work with stakeholders to highlight the opportunities, challenges, and efforts affecting boys and young men of color, and recommend to Obama means of ensuring sustained efforts within the federal government and continued partnership with the private sector and philanthropic community.

For funding, the president reached out to foundations to help with the program, and he had great success. Those foundations have invested $150 million and are seeking to invest another $200 million over the next five years. They’re focused on solutions with the highest impact potential: early child development and school readiness; parenting and parent engagement; third-grade literacy; educational opportunity and school discipline reform; interactions with the criminal justice system; ladders to jobs and economic opportunity.

It’s a big job, but it’s a critical one. Success is something everyone should want. Better educated young men, regardless of color, make for a stronger work force capable of handling higher paying jobs. Fewer men in prison means less stress on state and local budgets. Fewer people receiving public assistance means less stress on social program budgets and more taxpayers on the roll.

There’s no downside to encouraging and helping a child, particularly one at risk of falling by society’s wayside, get on the right path.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board