The new conventional wisdom is that black America is in deep decline and single-parent families are the cause. It is true that black single-parent families have increased significantly since the 1960s. However, the evidence for a black “culture of failure,” to excerpt a recent title by Juan Williams, is much harder to come by.
If single-parent families are destroying black America, we should be able to see it in black poverty rates. In 1967, the official black poverty rate was 39.5 percent. In 2007, 24.5 percent, 15 percentage points lower. Despite the proclamations to the contrary, the increase in single-parent families, has not led to a massive increase in black poverty. In fact, over the 1990s, we saw one of the biggest declines in the official black poverty rate in spite of high rates of single-parenthood.
The increase in black single-parent families is also blamed for causing a decline in the educational achievement of black students. Black students are supposed to be rejecting school left and right. If this is the case, we should be able to see it in the long-term trend scores of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This test is the gold standard for assessing black student academic achievement over time.
For thirteen-year olds in math, the NAEP black-white test score gap was 46 points in 1973. In 2004, the date of the last assessment results, it was down to 27 points. In reading for this age, the black-white gap closed from 39 points in 1971 to 22 points in 2004. The 2004 gaps are still quite large, but they were considerably worse in the 1970s when more blacks were married.
Black crime rates have also been blamed on absent black fathers, but, again, if one bothers to look at the data, it is hard to find the big increase in crime. In 1970, the black death rate from homicides was 44 per 100,000 blacks. In 2005, it was 21.1 per 100,000 blacks. There has been a massive increase in the reporting of murders on the news. Covering murders and other crimes is cheap and easy reporting for the news outlets since the police actually does nearly all of the work gathering the information. But more murders reported on the local nightly news does not actually require an increase in the murder rate, just as a reduction in murder reporting would not mean a reduction in the murder rate.
The evidence for a cultural decline in black America is thin, if one bothers to look at the evidence. It is certainly true that blacks are still much worse off than whites. This fact is true today, and it was true in the past when black marriage rates were higher. We should not celebrate the declining rates of black marriages nor should we be complacent about persistent black disadvantage. We should, however, resist demonizing black single-parent families. We should also resist the dismissal of the social and economic factors behind black-white inequalities.
Let’s consider the serious issue of poverty. Black poverty declined dramatically in the 1950s, 1960s and 1990s, but basically stayed around the same level in the 1970s and 1980s. The important question, if we are serious about wanting to produce further reductions in poverty, is why these different trends. History provides us with the clues to what works and what does not work in reducing black poverty.
What one learns from studying these trends is that one important factor in reducing poverty is low unemployment rates. In other words, when lots of blacks have jobs and decent wages, black poverty takes a nosedive. When the opposite occurs, as we will be seeing around this recession, black poverty increases. What should be done to reduce black poverty: increase the number of blacks employed and increase black wages.
It is extremely important that the federal government makes the investments necessary to create jobs. President-elect Obama promises 3 million jobs. This is good; more would be better. We also have to ask: will these jobs reach the people in poor black communities? The black poverty rate has been persistently higher than the white poverty rate, in part, because the black unemployment rate has been persistently higher than the white unemployment rate. Is ending this disparity on Barack Obama's agenda?
The Bush Administration has pushed marriage as an anti-poverty strategy, but we have several decades of evidence that increasing black employment rates and increasing black wages yield the most dramatic declines in black poverty. Will the new administration base its policies on proven methods or on the new conventional wisdom?
Dr. Algernon Austin is the Director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Washington, D.C. based Economic Policy Institute (EPI).