Higher educational attainment can be a ticket out of poverty and a pathway to steady lifetime employment. For many low-income men, however, educational experiences are a stumbling block to higher achievement, both academic and professional. These men are less likely to have completed high school or to have pursued postsecondary education. According to American Community Survey estimates from 2008 to 2010, more than a quarter (28 percent) of low-income men have dropped out of high school, compared with 10 percent of higher-income men (those in families with incomes above 200 percent of the federal poverty level). Notable racial disparities in education among low-income men also exist. Approximately 1 in 4 (26 percent) low-income African American men age 18 to 44 has dropped out of high school, compared with nearly 1 in 5 (17 percent) low-income white men. Low-income Hispanic men have the highest dropout share of all, at 50 percent. The racial gap in dropout rates and the gap between lower- and higher-income households should be cause for concern because of the implications for future well-being. Similarly, the gender gap within groups should be a concern because of the implications for family formation. Children who live in low-income communities often lack access to the good schools that would enable them to achieve educational success, making it more likely that low opportunity will reproduce itself. Young men of color seem especially disadvantaged by the educational institutions to which they have access. Their experiences increase the risk of low functional literacy and high dropout rates (De Anda and Hernandez 2008; Harding 2003; Noguera 1996; Rivera-Batiz 1990).
Hispanic men who are first- or second-generation immigrants are also at risk (Fortuny et al. 2009; Motel 2012). Many first-generation Hispanics have come to the United States with little formal education. Approximately 35 percent have not completed 9th grade, and 25 percent have completed 9th grade but not high school.5 Even men formally educated in their home countries are not always prepared for the
U.S. educational system or its labor market (Batalova and Fix 2011; Fry 2010; Pew Hispanic Center 2009). This is especially true for Hispanic men age 18–25 who immigrated in their late teens: only 6 percent are enrolled in postsecondary education in the United States, compared with 24 percent of men who arrived before age 16 and 35 percent of second-generation immigrants (Batalova and Fix 2011).
Enduring Consequences and the Role of Literacy and Language
Low educational attainment can have lasting consequences, most notably on employment prospects and outcomes. Generally, more education means higher lifetime earnings (Day and Newburger 2002) and more consistent employment (Finn 2006). Low educational attainment poses barriers to employment for a number of reasons. While a high school degree is an important basic credential for many jobs, lack of this credential may also be indicative of low functional literacy or poor English-language skills— issues warranting special consideration among disconnected low-income men. Functional literacy and English-language skills are pressing concerns as the changing labor market continues to require higher skills for jobs that pay a living wage.
Functional literacy. Although not the entire story, adult literacy is an important component of racial disparities in earnings (De Anda and Hernandez 2008; Raudenbush and Kasim 1998). The term “functional literacy” encompasses skill sets such as computer-, financial-, civic-, and media-literacy, and it includes a person’s ability to develop knowledge and potential by navigating complex sociopolitical and economic systems and institutions (Ntiri 2009). While economic outcomes such as annual weeks worked and poverty status vary by educational status, these outcomes also vary substantially by literacy rates within a given educational level (Condelli et al. 2010).
As adults, low-income men may have limited opportunity or face other obstacles to furthering education or improving literacy. One impediment is that once low-skilled adults leave school, policymakers and educators lose the primary mechanism (i.e., the school) for identifying and assisting people who need additional support. In addition, men who could benefit from adult literacy instruction often do not attend classes because they either do not know about the resources, underestimate their own literacy needs, are not interested, or do not have classes available in their area. For these and other reasons, only a fraction of adults with basic and below-basic literacy levels are enrolled in literacy programs (Condelli et al. 2010).
English-language skills. In addition to those who leave the public school system without the requisite educational degree or academic proficiency, immigrants—especially Hispanic immigrants—are often at risk because of their limited English proficiency (Capps and Fortuny 2008; Condelli et al. 2010; Jiménez 2011; Terrazas 2011). Some have had little schooling (sometimes finishing only elementary school) and are literate in neither their home language nor English (Condelli et al. 2010). More than two-thirds of Hispanic immigrant men age 18 and older are not proficient in English, and about a third have not completed 9th grade. Among men with little schooling (less than 9th grade), the proportion who are limited English proficient goes up to 89 percent.6 A small proportion of immigrants with higher educational degrees also lacks proficiency in English (Capps and Fortuny 2008; Terrazas 2011). For both groups of Hispanic men, those with little education as well as those with degrees, poor English-language skills greatly limit their educational and employment prospects (Condelli et al. 2010; Fry 2010; Terrazas 2011).
While the above synopsis represents only a small sampling of the literature on educational attainment, literacy, and English-language proficiency, it powerfully demonstrates the constellation of risks a weak educational foundation can produce in men’s lives and raises important questions for further consideration. Given their educational deficiencies, institutional constraints, and neighborhood barriers, how can disconnected young men advance in society? Can low-income men with less than high school educations find jobs to support themselves, much less a family? And how do race, ethnicity, and geography factor in? Is improved literacy a partial answer? If so, how can literacy be improved among low-income men? There are also unanswered questions concerning the connection between failing schools and the criminal justice system. Have failing schools become de facto pipelines into the criminal justice system for African American and Hispanic boys (Vera Sanchez and Adams 2011)? If so, how do we stop the flow of low-performing minority students into the criminal justice system?