GREENSBORO, N.C. — Promoting his initiative for boys and young men of color, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that helping these males stay out of trouble and on the right path is an “American challenge” that will pay off for the U.S. economy in the long run.

Speaking about the “My Brother’s Keeper” program during an ESPN-hosted forum, Obama said the economy could grow about 2 percent faster if the U.S. closes documented achievement, wealth and employment gaps that often consign minorities to lives that are less stable and less financially secure.

He acknowledged that 2 percent “doesn’t seem like a lot” but said “it would mean trillions of dollars of additional wealth for everybody.”

Young people today are the workers, taxpayers and business customers of the future, Obama said, adding that everyone will benefit if they have money in their pockets, including “old heads” like himself who in the future will rely on them for Social Security checks.

“So if they’re unemployed or underemployed, if they’re in prison, that is bad for all of us, not just for them,” Obama said. “This is an American challenge.”

Obama launched “My Brother’s Keeper” in February 2014 to address persistent opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color. Some 250 communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 19 tribal nations have their own “My Brother’s Keeper” programs, the White House said.

Before leaving Washington, the White House announced that Sprint Corp. will do its part to help close the digital divide by providing free tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices, along with four years of service, to 1 million low-income, high-school students who can’t get on the internet at home.

Obama also praised the value of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities during the forum, which was taped at North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU with a highly regarded engineering program. The event was hosted by “The Undefeated,” an ESPN website that explores the intersection of race, sports and culture. ESPN broadcast the forum Tuesday night.

Obama pushed back against the notion that his administration has been insufficiently supportive of historically black colleges, which are under enormous financial pressure.

He called HBCUs a “foundation stone” for building the black middle class and black wealth, and said he had increased federal funding to them to $4 billion annually. Obama said these schools are facing difficult financial decisions, as are non-HBCUs, because states are cutting funding for higher education.

The president urged students worried about the cost of a college education to vote. “If you don’t vote, then you will not have any say in the decisions that are made in state capitals or in Congress about the kind of support that you receive,” he said. “You don’t have to be an engineering major to figure out the math on this one.”

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