OPINION: We have a crisis in California. Happily, circumstances have handed us an opportunity to address it, but only if we act.
While California’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.5 percent last year, some groups still face Depression-level unemployment. Nationally, Latino men age 20 to 24 have an 11.5 percent unemployment rate, while for young African American men, the rate is roughly 20 percent. With our state’s unemployment rate well above the national average, the rates for young blacks and Latinos in California are undoubtedly worse.
This crisis threatens our whole state. Seventy percent of California males age 24 and under are boys and men of color, and by 2050 that figure will be 80 percent. They are our state’s future, and these unemployment rates will cripple that future.
Today we have a tremendous opportunity to address this crisis. Thanks to health care reform and a growing, aging population, employment in the health services sector is projected to grow far faster than California’s economy overall – 27 percent by 2020.
Many of these are good jobs – positions like radiology technician and therapy assistant – that pay $35,000 or more a year without requiring a college degree. And men of color are significantly underrepresented in these fields.
If we can connect young men of color to these jobs, we’ll go a long way toward solving their unemployment crisis. Plus, our increasingly diverse state will have a health workforce that’s better able to give appropriate and welcoming care to all Californians, including those now getting health care for the first time.
But that won’t come easily. In researching this issue, we found a series of obstacles that block the path to health sector careers for boys and men of color. These include cultural attitudes (for example, the stereotype that caregiving professions are feminine), lack of investment in K-12 education, lack of specific curriculum to help young males prepare for health sector careers, and our dysfunctional justice system
Multiple studies have found that young Latino and African American men are far more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than comparable whites, differences that often bear no relation to rates of criminal activity. For example, although blacks use illegal drugs at the same rate as whites, they are twice as likely to be imprisoned on drug charges.
Today, criminal background check requirements for many health sector jobs bar thousands of men of color from these careers, even when their crime was minor, nonviolent, or very long ago. California should align state law with federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommendations, which call for this information to be assessed individually rather than being a blanket barrier to employment. We can protect patients and others from the small percentage of people who actually pose a risk without destroying the futures of thousands who simply made a mistake.
Education and training form another crucial piece of the puzzle, and the increase in school funding just proposed by Gov. Brown is a good start — but just a start.
There are excellent examples of school programs that can help. For example, the Health Tech Academy at Valley High School in Sacramento comprehensively connects students of color to health careers via health clinic visits, networking opportunities, and health sciences classes. Schools need to create more such programs, and the health care industry needs to support them.
Much needs to be done at the state government level. Legislators can show leadership, and state agencies need to implement targeted strategies and funding streams for proven approaches that will improve the opportunities and life outcomes of our boys and men of color.
This situation is a classic case of crisis meeting opportunity. If we act, we can have both a stronger economy and a better, more responsive health care system for all Californians.
Ed’s Note: Jordan Medina is Health Policy Fellow and Carla Saporta is Health Policy Director at The Greenlining Institute, www.greenlining.org. They are co-authors of the new report, “Pathways Out of Poverty: Boys and Men of Color and Jobs in the Health Sector.”