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Chapter IV

Incarceration, Poverty and the Educational Achievement of Male Black Students

“To make the society happy and people easy under the meanest circum-stances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be ignorant as well as poor.” Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees.
We have looked at incarceration rates, poverty and educational attainment for African-Americans, especially male African-Americans. These factors are not independent of one another. Mass incarceration of young adult African-American men leads to poverty for themselves and their families and is to some extent caused by that poverty (although to a great extent it is also caused by governmental policies and practices). Family poverty, given current fiscal policies in regard to education, usually confines Black children to schools where there is a little of educational opportunity. This in turn, giving the wheel another push, leads in the following years to reduced incomes, higher crime rates, shorter lives.

It is taken for granted that more Black than White children grow up in poverty. But why are more Black than White children growing up in poverty? Stopping the causal wheel at this question points to one important factor:  a very large proportion of Black women raising children in poverty are doing so because the fathers of those children are imprisoned. Western and Pettit found that in 2009 over 11% of Black children had an incarcerated parent, as compared to fewer than 2% of White, non-Hispanic, and 3.5% of Hispanic children.  Pettit estimates that “one-quarter of black children will experience parental imprisonment before their eighteenth birthday.”  Black children, therefore, are between three and more than five times more likely than Hispanic or White, non-Hispanic, children to grow up without an adult male in or contributing to the household, simply because of the mass incarceration of Black men. The median family income of Black married couples with children was $70,000 in 2010. It was $21,500 for Black women raising children with no husband present—somewhat under the poverty line.   There are eleven million Black children under the age of 18. With 11% having an incarcerated parent, there are probably 1.2 million Black children, out of a total of the 3.9 million Black children living in poverty, who are living in poverty because their fathers are in prison. If the incarceration rate for African-American men were lowered to that for Hispanic men, for example, approximately 800,000 fewer Black children would grow up in poverty.

The intergenerational effects of the wheel of Black poverty are readily apparent at many points around its circumference. For example, the educational attainment—or lack thereof—of fathers is associated with that of their sons. We can consider the educational attainment of the fathers of male Black students, as reported by male Black students taking the NAEP Grade 8 Reading examination in 2011. Twelve percent of those students scoring “below Basic” reported that their fathers had not finished high school, a percentage that declines as performance improves, so that only 2% of those scoring at the Advanced level reported that their fathers had not finished high school. The opposite was the case for those reporting that their fathers had completed college: 23% of those students scoring at the “below Basic” level report that their fathers had completed college, while 61% of those students scoring at the Advanced level reported that their fathers had completed college.  College educated fathers are relatively unlikely to have been incarcerated. They are likely to have higher incomes than those fathers who did not finish high school. Their sons will have the advantage of a parental model of commitment to education as well as the advantage of an upper middle class family income.

On average, just over half of African-American children from impoverished families, whose fathers did not finish high school score below grade level on the Grade 8 NAEP Reading assessment. Fifty-six percent of all male African-American students whose fathers did not finish high school score below grade level by grade 8. It can be assumed, then, from the relationship of income and incarceration, that more than half of those male Black children with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated fathers will themselves not graduate from high school.

The combination of poverty and parental incarceration inhibits educational attainment. U. C. Berkeley’s Rucker C. Johnson has observed that “There are a myriad of ways in which parental incarceration may compound disadvantage.

It may 1) increase the probabilities of growing up poor and/or with a single parent; or 2) elevate the risk of criminal involvement and incarceration later in life for children of the incarcerated  … There are a variety of potential mechanisms through which parental incarceration may affect child outcomes including economic instability, living-arrangement instability, parental attachment issues, role model effects, to name a few.
Another way in which “parental incarceration may compound disadvantage,” according to Johnson, is “neighborhood quality,” which “is a significant gatekeeper of the intergenerational transmission of deviant behavior and incarceration risks among males.”   In other words, children whose parents are in prison are likely to live in neighborhoods with deficient housing, inferior schools, high crime rates and an unusual degree of attention from the police. Part of the reason that these neighborhoods are of low quality is precisely because many of the men who might otherwise live in them are instead living in prison. Another reason is that many of the men who do live in them have been in prison and consequently have diminished economic prospects, among other disadvantages, such as an increased likelihood to have a place on a police list of usual suspects: to be arrested when arrests are needed to fill quotas, justify budgets, and the like.

In addition to the economic effects, the incarceration of a father can contribute to the prison to school to prison circuit by affecting the behavior of his children:

One study found that 23 percent of children with a father who has served time in a jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school, compared with just 4 percent of children whose fathers have not been incarcerated. Research that controls for other variables suggests that paternal incarceration, in itself, is associated with more aggressive behavior among boys and an increased likelihood of being expelled or suspended from school.
Given eight million Black students enrolled k-12, and 25% with parents who have been  incarcerated during their school years, then half a million Black children, overwhelmingly male, can be expected to be suspended or expelled from school simply from the effects of parental incarceration. These effects become apparent early in the school careers of Black children. Research by Christopher Wildeman “demonstrates that recent and prior paternal incarceration is associated with significantly higher levels of physically aggressive behaviors in boys at age five.”  The immense number of arrests and incarcerations of Black men in contexts where White men would not be arrested or incarcerated may reduce the tolerance of Black children, especially male Black children, for the exercise of adult authority characteristic of schooling. Then the likelihood of a male Black student acting in such a way as to invoke school disciplinary procedures may be increased. On the other hand, as we have seen, other things being equal, just as Black males are disproportionately incarcerated, so Black male school children are disproportionately selected for school discipline actions. It is not necessarily the student’s psychology that is primary in school discipline matters; it is often the psychology of the adult school authorities.

Incarceration of large numbers of young adult Black males affects the educational attainment of the mothers of their children as well. Four times the percentage Black students from lower income families as those from higher income families have mothers who were reported by their children as not having finished high school. Nearly three times the percentage of Black grade 8 students from higher income families than those from lower income families had mothers who graduated from college. Just 11% of Black students from low-income families report that their mothers graduated from college, while 28% of Black students from higher income families had college educated mothers. Fourteen times as many students from higher income families reported that their mothers graduated from college than that their mothers did not finish high school.

Looking at statistics such as these, Pamela Oliver and her colleagues note that “States with higher Black male imprisonment exhibit a rise in the prevalence of Black mothers — especially single mothers — who have not completed high school, despite an overall trend toward rising education among Black women …

It seems likely that there are two mechanisms contributing to this result. One is the reduced legitimacy of mainstream institutions caused by perceptions of injustice and the rise in connections to criminal culture. The second is the rising competition for increasingly scarce men. On the first side, mass incarceration is associated with higher levels of community connections with prisoners and criminal lifestyles. Moreover, as the proportion of young men in a community incarcerated rises, the criminal justice system is seen increasingly as illegitimate by its targets, and this contributes to a general decline in the perceived legitimacy of the dominant culture. Young people of both sexes are pulled out of school by the disruptions in family life from having incarcerated relatives and by their own involvement in illegitimate or illegal activities. For a young woman, the paths to dropping out of high school and having a child are intertwined, as detachment from school and increasing sexual activity tend to reinforce each other. This leads to the second mechanism. While a steep reduction in the pool of available young men may lead some young women to defer sexual involvement and obtain more education, it can also lead others to be more willing to be sexually involved in the competition for increasingly scarce partners.

This directly affects the educational achievement of male Black students, as the educational achievement of male Black students strongly tracks the reported educational attainment of their mothers as well as that of their fathers.The percentage of male Black students scoring at or above Proficient on the NAEP Grade 8 Reading Assessment more than doubles as their mothers’ reported educational attainment increases. (As with the reported educational attainment of fathers, the percentages of male Black students reporting “I don’t know” for mothers declines as scores rise.)

In the United States, as in many other countries, the dire effects of poverty on student learning begin well before children go to school. For example, in Australia, all children, without regard to race or ethnicity, “at four to five years of age from low-income families showed lower school readiness over all domains, but particularly in the area of language development. Two years later, at six to seven years of age, more children from low-income families were experiencing literacy and numeracy difficulties than children from middle income families.”  Experience in the United States is similar. It is likely that due to the cumulative effects of family poverty, parental incarceration and multi-generational education deficiencies, as many as three-quarters of male Black children arrive at kindergarten unready for easy adaption to school routines and unready to begin learning basic literacy. In Maryland, in the 2001-2 school year (before the institution of the state’s path-breaking school readiness program), approximately half of all kindergarten students were school-ready, but only 32% of all low-income students were judged to be school-ready. It is not surprising, then, that at that time only 35% of African-American students in Maryland, where a quarter of all Black children under five years of age lived in low-income families, were school-ready when they reached kindergarten.

Of course family poverty continues to affect student learning once children are enrolled in school. This can be illustrated with scores on the 2011 NAEP assessment of fourth grade Reading, comparing all students eligible for the National Lunch Program and all those ineligible, as determined by family income. At the point in a student’s school career that it is vital that their reading skills are at least at grade level, nearly half of those living in low-income households are reading far below grade level and an additional one-third have only Basic reading skills. Just one-sixth the proportion of students from low-income families as students from higher income families reach the Advanced level in grade 4 Reading.

Results from the grade 8 Reading assessment show that four more years of schooling decrease the percentage of students at the below Basic level who are low-income families, but only by increasing the percentage of those at the Basic level. The percentage of those reading at grade level (Proficient and above) is unchanged. These poverty effects common to all American students are intensified among African-American students, particularly Black males. Young Black male students whose families have incomes sufficiently low to make them eligible for the National Lunch Program (nearly half of all Black children) rarely read at grade level by grade 4. Only 10% have skills that are Proficient or Advanced. On the other hand, three times that proportion, 29%, of male Black children from less impoverished households, read at grade level in grade 4.

The deficient reading skills of low-income Black male students in primary school is of obvious importance. According to one researcher, Donald Hernandez, risk factors for failure to graduate from high school by age 19 include lack of reading proficiency in early elementary grades. (The other risk factors are the overlapping categories of poverty and “Black or Hispanic racial/ethnic status.”)  Among White, non-Hispanic, children, 26% of those from low-income families and 51% of those from higher income families score at or above Proficient in Reading at grade 4, and virtually the same proportions, 25% and 47% do so at grade 8. On the other hand, 10% of those Black males from low-income families and 18% of those from higher income families score at or above Proficient at grade 4, while at grade 8 there has been no improvement: just 9% of those from low-income families and 19% of those from higher income families. The racial gap remains virtually the same. Ninety-one percent of male Black students in middle school from low-income families do not read at grade level. The same is true of 81% of middle class male Black middle school students. An argument can be made that reading achievement in the primary grades is predominately influenced by home factors. This argument is much less persuasive for middle school students. Their schools have had at least eight years to level the playing field. If they have not, the fault is most likely in the schools, not the families.

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