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Before Obama's New Initiative Stands A Landscape Of Hard Numbers


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about a new initiative unveiled recently by President Obama. It's called My Brother's Keeper. The goal, in the words of the White House, is to help every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead. But the challenges are great. Here's President Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Fifty years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America's children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men.

CORNISH: My Brother's Keeper is not a government program with money to spend. The dollars are largely private, some 200 million from a group of big-named foundations. And they'll spend them over the next five years working on things like early childhood development, literacy and parent engagement. Meanwhile, the government's role is really to study the problem. Why are so many young black and Latino men falling behind? And to make sure the federal government is doing all it can to be part of the solution.

Before we talk about solutions though, we're going to begin with a few numbers. And to help make sense of the problem, we have Dedrick Muhammad. He's the senior director of the Economic Department at the NAACP, and executive director of its Financial Freedom Center. Welcome to the program.

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And, Dedrick, to start, is there one particular statistic that stands out to you that really tells the story of what is going on with the opportunity gap with black and Latino children?

MUHAMMAD: The stat that always gets me is that about a third of black children are born in poverty, and the idea that we all can have equal opportunity when a third of us already start in poverty, I think, shows the great disparities that still exist in this country.

CORNISH: Now, the initiative doesn't just put emphasis on education. It has a long list of things it tries to tackle. And one of those is the interaction between black and Latino boys in the criminal justice system. Now, keeping in mind that the focus here is on men under the age of 25 and specifically kids under the age of 15, what do the numbers there tell us about disparities?

MUHAMMAD: Well, yes. I mean we've seen disparities for African-American youth. We've seen incarceration rates for males as much as one out of nine African-American male youths incarcerated. For Latinos, it jumps up to about one out of 20, one out of 25. And then for whites, it's one out of 60.

CORNISH: Looking at that, is the president's initiative focused in the right place?

MUHAMMAD: Well, I think the president's initiative, to me, is significant in that it has been so difficult to push for more broad measures. I mean the president himself had pushed for the idea of a universal pre-K, of much larger job programs - job opportunities for all Americans but also for inner-city youth. These programs generally are not getting through Congress. And so, now I think we see him advancing what he can do, a president's initiative, which is much more limited as was mentioned, much more focused on utilizing private dollars.

CORNISH: And the foundations and groups that have signed on for this, you know, they were already spending upwards of $150 million on similar programs. And this essentially asks them to pour in another $200 million. How do you see that money really making a difference?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I mean it definitely can make differences for individuals, for small communities. And I think it's important to remember that America became a middle-class economy through mass federal investments. America wasn't always a country where most people lived in a middle-class lifestyle...

CORNISH: Which is not what this is, I mean this...

MUHAMMAD: That's right.

CORNISH: ...private donations for foundations doing the work.

MUHAMMAD: That's right. And the way America developed the middle-class economy was through mass federal investment. And at that time we were living through segregated era, so it was a white middle-class. And if were really going to deal with these issues nationwide, it's going to require much broader efforts. I think what the president's initiative can do is it can point to some best practices, to make some of these programs much more national in scope.

CORNISH: Dedrick Muhammad, he's senior director of the Economic Department at the NAACP and executive director of its Financial Freedom Center.

Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MUHAMMAD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.