Mostly True
"Fewer black and Latino men participate in the labor force, compared to young white men."

Barack Obama on Thursday, February 27th, 2014 in an event at the White House

Barack Obama says fewer black, Latino young men participate in the labor force than young white men

President Barack Obama gestures during an event in the East Room of the White House to promote his My Brother's Keeper initiative on Feb. 27, 2014.

In a high-profile event at the White House on Feb. 27, 2014, President Barack Obama unveiled a new effort called the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, designed "to help every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead."

Obama told the audience -- a mix of African American and Latino youth and such public figures as basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and former Secretary of State Colin Powell -- that he understood the challenges facing young people of color.

"The only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving," Obama said. "So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe. I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders. … I firmly believe that every child deserves the same chances that I had. That's why we are here today, to do what we can in this year of action to give more young Americans the support they need to make good choices, and to be resilient and overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams."

A group of prominent foundations have pledged $200 million over five years to improve early childhood development, school readiness, parental engagement, literacy, educational opportunity and school discipline.

As Obama explained the challenges facing young black and Latino men today, he offered this statistic: "Fewer black and Latino men participate in the labor force, compared to young white men."

We wondered whether that was accurate, so we turned to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government’s official repository for employment data.

We used as our yardstick the labor force participation rate. This is the percentage of the civilian population that is either employed or unemployed. ("Unemployed" refers to people who are not employed but who are actively looking for work.) In addition, we assumed that Obama was comparing youth labor force participation for black and Latino men to the rate for white youth, even though he didn’t explicitly say that. Given the context, this seemed to be the obvious interpretation.

Finally, we had to determine a definition for "young." The most appropriate age ranges for which BLS offers data, we concluded, are 16 to 19 and 20 to 24. So we’ll look at the data for both of these ranges.

Here’s a summary of what we found for January 2014, the most recent month for which data on the labor force participation rate is available.



16-19 years old

20-24 years old

White men

35.1 percent

74.2 percent

Black men

25.3 percent

66.2 percent

Hispanic men

27.0 percent

77.1 percent


So for Americans age 16 to 19, Obama is correct that labor force participation among black and Hispanic men trails that of white men.

But the data for men age 20 to 24 are more mixed. Labor force participation among whites does exceed that of blacks, but the rates for Latinos actually exceed those of whites. (Latinos also have a higher rate for men age 25-29.) So on this score, Obama is only half-right.

We checked with economists to see if they had an explanation for higher labor force participation rates. A big reason appears to be what happens in college.

"Among the youngsters who complete high school, Latinos and non-Hispanic whites are now about equally likely to attend college, but a higher proportion of Hispanic youngsters drop out of high school before obtaining a diploma," said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. "In addition, Hispanic college enrollees are less likely to enroll in four-year colleges and less likely to be enrolled as full-time students. Generally, full-time students are less likely to work for pay or be looking for a job compared with non-students and part-time students."

What this means, Burtless said, is that more young Hispanics are free to become part of the labor force.

Another possible factor, Burtless suggested: A higher percentage of Hispanic young adults are not legal residents, so they may be ineligible for the student assistance and public aid that would permit them to be students and remain outside the workforce. "If you cannot legally obtain college aid or public assistance, or are afraid to ask for it, you are probably more likely to support yourself through work," he said.

In the meantime, we also wondered whether having a higher labor force participation rate for those age 16 to 19, as whites do, is unquestionably a good thing, since it could reward high school dropouts who took low-wage jobs.

"Participating in the labor force at this age would not seem to be an unmitigated good," said George Washington University economist Tara Sinclair. "Even at older ages, I wouldn't be against seeing more stay-at-home dads."  

Burtless said that among economists, the jury is still out on this question.

"Many students can combine paid employment with satisfactory progress toward a high school or college degree, but obviously this would be a challenge for some young people who need to apply themselves hard in school in order to complete a degree," he said, adding that his own research suggests that the earlier in life that Americans start to work, the more money they earn later on. What’s less clear is whether late entry into the job market causes lower earnings, or whether people who go on to earn a lot of money simply love to work and start doing so earlier in their lives.

Our ruling

Obama said that "fewer black and Latino men participate in the labor force, compared to young white men." That’s true for black men age 16-19 and 20-24 and for Hispanic men age 16-19, but it’s not correct for Hispanic men age 20-24. We rate the claim Mostly True.