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February 28, 2014
The Path to Responsibility Can Start With a Broom and a Paycheck

The president's 'My Brother's Keeper' program could take a few tips from a long-running effort in New York.

by Robert Doar

It is hard to be a young black male in the United States today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for African-American men between 16 and 24 is 30.5%. That rate is more than twice what it is for whites in the same age group. Among African-American men over 20, more than 33% are not in the labor force. In addition, young African-American men are also more likely to be poor and to not graduate from high school. Sadly, the disparities these numbers reveal have not changed much since President Obama was elected in 2008.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama announced an initiative called My Brother's Keeper intended to "unlock the full potential of boys and young men of color," aiming to help them avoid the pitfalls of unemployment and criminality by focusing on education and personal responsibility. A White House task force will work on the matter, and Mr. Obama has recruited foundations and businesses pledging $200 million over five years to find solutions.

Those on the My Brother's Keeper team searching for answers about how to help the most "at risk" young minority men would do well to stop by the Doe Fund in New York City, where, for more than 25 years, the organization run by George and Harriet McDonald has helped homeless men. The program they run is based on a clear contract between the shelter managers and the homeless men. "You get up every day and go to work and stay drug free—and we will pay you and house you and feed you. It's as simple as that," Mr. McDonald said at his shelter on 155th street in Harlem. Doe Fund facilities are funded by revenue generation from their maintenance and cleaning business, government funding for homeless services, and private donations. The breakdown is roughly one-third each.

Anyone who enters one of the four Doe Fund facilities in New York City is handed a paper entitled: "Some of the Rules that You Will hear ALL the time." Among the regulations are Rule No. 4: No standing or loitering in front of the building at any time of the day. Rule No. 10: You must not drink or drug while you are in the program. Rule No. 11: No cellular phones are allowed while you are working.

In return for a roof over their heads and a salary, residents of the Doe Fund shelters clean and maintain commercial strips all over New York City—real jobs, with real demands and shifts that start at 6 a.m. The Doe Fund crews add an extra touch not provided by the sanitation and park employees of New York City, and every day workers face real customers who include not only local business groups who pay for their services but also residents and pedestrians who benefit from the improved quality of life.

Hourly wages start at $8.15, which gives shelter residents a chance to save, as room and board are provided. Some men accumulate as much as $5,000 while they are in the six- to nine-month program.

According to the McDonalds, over the past three years 57% of the men who completed the six-month program got jobs at an average wage of $10.86 an hour. And 65% of those retained the job for at least six months. A 2010 Harvard University evaluation found similar results. For a program that works with homeless men, many of whom have served prison sentences, those are solid results.

In addition to a strong work and drug-free requirement (enforced by random drug tests), the Doe Fund also requires the men who are fathers to provide financial support to their children and to identify themselves to the city's child-support enforcement office to be sure they comply with their child-support orders.

What is important about the Doe Fund is that it explicitly links aid with a strong enforcement of the rules. Doe Fund managers enforce the rules by restricting noncompliant residents to the shelter, reducing benefits or referring them to another city shelter where these opportunities are not offered. The Doe Fund is not alone in its approach—there are similar setups across the country, but in most such programs it's still rare to tie behavior to consequences.

That's surprising, given that the approach used by the Doe Fund is right out of the welfare-reform playbook—the nation's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for poor single mothers links help with strong work requirements. As a result of this 1996 reform, many more single mothers are working, which has led to a reduction in child poverty.

The typical way that men wind up in the Doe Fund program is through referral from the city's Department of Homeless Services. But there is no stigma attached to being a Doe Fund worker, who dress in distinctive blue uniforms and are familiar sights on the city's streets. It is not uncommon for poor men—many under age 30—to join the program on their own, sensing that their life needs structure and because they need a job.

It is troubling that at the same time the president has announced a new focus on helping young minority men, one of his administration's top legislative priorities is a substantial hike in the federal minimum wage—a mandate on employers that is likely to reduce job opportunities for the very young men the president wants to help with My Brother's Keeper.

There's an old Washington story about former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan angrily telling President Bill Clinton to give up his obsession with health-care reform and focus on the much bigger problem of welfare and our nation's care for the poor. That story came to mind as I read about the White House's big push, five years into the Obama administration, to alleviate the problems of young minority men. It is very late, and it is not enough.


Mr. Doar, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former commissioner of New York City's Human Resources Administration (2007-13), the city's principal social services agency.


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