If California were a business, it would be awash in red ink. Young people are one of our greatest assets and the best indicator of our state’s future prosperity and health. Yet too many of our assets are growing up without a fair shot at being healthy and succeeding. This is especially true for boys and young men of color who are more likely to confront significant health barriers on the road to adulthood.
Young men of color are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods where they confront challenges to their safety and well being. In their neighborhoods, they are seven times more likely to die from gun violence than all others.
Young men of color are also more likely to go to schools where they don’t have the tools and help they need to learn, including experienced and qualified teachers. For instance, during the 2008-2009 school-year, the California middle schools that served more than 90 percent Latino, African-American and American Indian students were almost 10 times more likely than majority white and Asian schools to experience severe shortages of qualified teachers.
And the proliferation of severe school disciplinary measures disproportionately pushes boys and young men of color out of our public education system. Even though African-American students represented eight percent of the state’s public school enrollment, they represented 19 percent of out-of-school suspensions in the 2002-2003 school-year.
As a result of these barriers, young men of color are more likely to start their adult life without a high school diploma. African-American Californians over age 25 are nearly twice as likely as whites to be without a high school diploma.
And those young men of color who do graduate from high school are less likely to be prepared for college. Only 15 percent of African-American high school graduates have completed the courses that are required to seek admission to California’s four-year colleges and universities.
“But where are the health barriers?” you might be wondering. “What does education have to do with health?” It is generally accepted that without a good education, it’s unlikely you will get the most basic of jobs. At a time when our public conversation is focused on the high cost of health care, few realize that education is also one of the strongest paths to good health, particularly for boys of color. In fact, a large body of evidence strongly and consistently links education—the number of years spent getting a primary, secondary education and beyond—with health, even when you take factors like income into account. Simply put, people with more education are likely to live longer, to be healthier, to exercise regularly, refrain from risky behavior, go to the doctor for timely care and avoid violence.
Educational achievement is also linked to incarceration rates. According to the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara, doubling high school graduation rates would reduce the number of juvenile crimes in California and save the state $550 million per year.
In short, education influences our behavior, our jobs and income, our sense of control and support, and our social standing. Education is the gateway to health and well-being.
While many Californians face their own set of challenges, the statistics make it clear that many boys and young men of color face a unique and significant set of barriers to health and success. In particular, America’s growing preoccupation with crime means that actions that for other young men would be treated as youthful mistakes are judged more severely and are more likely to result in lasting punishment for young men of color. We are at risk of losing an entire generation of productive men, which will cost all of us, especially girls and young women of color.
There is good news. All of the barriers facing boys and young men of color are the result of our decisions, which means that we have the capacity to tear down these barriers to health, well being and success. There are local success stories already taking root across the state. The best practices from these programs need to be identified, scaled up and invested in at the state level. Boys and young men of color across California require access to these working models. We know what works—early intervention that gets boys off to a great start, schools that shift focus from severe disciplinary policies that push students out toward keeping our young men in school and out of the juvenile justice system, increased access to health care services that recognize the trauma these young men have experienced and expanded opportunities for meaningful employment to ensure that education becomes a pathway to a healthy life. State policymakers must invest in these programs that have been proven to work at the local level.
As a fast-growing segment of California’s and the nation’s population, young people of color have a vital role to play in building a prosperous future for the United States. All Californians stand to benefit by doing everything possible to ensure that young men of color have the chance to grow up healthy, to get a good education and to make positive contributions to their communities. We will reap the rewards of this investment. Boys and young men of color can make our neighborhoods safer and stronger and they can work hard, innovate and keep California competitive in the global economy. It’s time for California to renew its commitment to making sure that all young people have a fair shot to grow up healthy and successful.
Robert Phillips is the Director of Health and Human Services for The California Endowment. As director of the Health and Human Services program, Phillips leads the foundation’s efforts to develop initiatives to reduce barriers to efficient, effective functioning health systems that promote the health of low-income communities and communities of color.