Ending Black Poverty
“White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living … This, in turn, gives support to prejudice…” Gunner Myrdal
To summarize this book’s argument to this point:
In 2011the poverty rate for Black families with children under the age of 18 was 33%, that for White, non-Hispanic, families was less than half the Black poverty rate: 15%. The difference can be attributed to the concentration of Black children in poorly resourced neighborhood schools and the mass incarceration of young adult Black men. Concentrated poverty, under conventional school funding policies, results in many Black students attending inadequately performing schools, schools that do not have the resources needed by children growing up in poverty. Large numbers of those children leave school without a high school diploma and young Black men without high school diplomas go to jail in inordinate numbers. The inordinate rates of incarceration of African-American men lead to disproportionate levels of Black poverty and disproportionate concentrations of Black neighborhood poverty foster disproportionate rates of violence, leading to yet higher rates of incarcerations for African-American men.
There is a large and growing scholarly and popular literature on a “school to prison pipeline” for young Black men. The argument of that literature is that lack of educational achievement and attainment among young Black men — together with such practices as extraordinary rates of out-of-school suspensions — lead to mass incarcerations of young adult Black men. Becky Pettit, for example, observes that “The education system contributes to particularly high dropout rates for black men, who then face a high risk of incarceration. As a result, incarceration has become a normative life course event for low-skill black men.” Pettit’s book, Invisible Men, makes the argument that matters in regard to the educational attainment levels of African-American men are even worse than usually thought, as they have been distorted by a systematic downward bias in estimates of the high school dropout rate of male Black students (and thus an overestimate of their high school graduation rates). The source of this distortion is the convention of excluding prison inmates from census estimates. (If the size of a population group as a whole is underestimated, but the number of those attaining higher education credentials remains the same, the higher education attainment rate will be overestimated.) If this distortion is corrected, Pettit argues, “Including inmates in estimates suggests a nationwide high school dropout rate among young black men more than 40 percent higher than conventional estimates using the CPS [U. S. Census Current Population Survey] would suggest, and no improvement in the black-white gap in high school graduation rates since the early 1990s.”
Moving on to an estimate of how her corrections affect the distribution of the numbers of Black and White men incarcerated at each education level, Pettit calculates dramatic comparative “cumulative risks of imprisonment” for Black men in particular on the basis of her emended educational attainment rates:
Cumulative Risk of Imprisonment by Ages 30 to 34
All Less Than High School High School/GED Some College
White Black White Black White Black White Black
5.4 28.0 28.0 68.0 6.2 21.4 1.2 6.6
We can look at this on an annual, rather than cumulative, basis. In 2008, for example, when of the approximately 4.2 million African-American men ages 20-34, approximately 1.6 million had not completed high school, thirty-seven percent of those men were incarcerated; by ages 35-40, 40% will have been incarcerated. Most by that point will have at least two children of their own, left to be raised in poverty by a “female householder” living in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods with few resources. Just over a quarter of White men who lack a high school diploma risk spending time in prison by age 34. The risk for Black men is more than two out of three. While the probability of imprisonment for African-American men with some college is approximately the same as that for White men with just a high school diploma or GED, that for White men with some college is insignificant. An African-American man who is able to complete some college reduces his risk of imprisonment by 90%.
However, this is only half the story. The pipelines flow in both directions and to a large extent “the prison to school pipeline” is the more important. Much of the reason for the lack of educational achievement by many Black children follows from the extraordinary rates at which their fathers are arrested by police and incarcerated with the complicity of prosecutors and judges. Imprisoned men can contribute little or nothing to save their children from lives spent in poverty. Even formerly imprisoned men all too often have little chance of finding work that can support their children above the poverty level, particularly given their own usual lack of effective educational attainment. As housing patterns are strongly associated with household income, the families of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated men, especially if they are African-American, are among the most likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
In addition, because of the increasing segregation of American cities, it is much more likely that a middle class Black family than a middle class White family will be forced to live in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty, simply by virtue of their race. (The oddity of the idea that a middle class White family would be unable to find a home outside an area of concentrated poverty points to the racist nature of American housing patterns.) Schools in segregated neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are usually inadequate to their mission. A Black student in an integrated suburban school — without regard to that student’s family income — can be as much as six times more likely to graduate on-time and college-ready than a Black student in a segregated urban school. Similarly, a Black student in a segregated urban school, even a Black student from a middle class family, is unlikely to receive an education that will graduate him from high school on-time and college- or career-ready.
Concentrated neighborhood poverty, because of the peculiarities of the drug laws and matters at the level of detail of police officer reward systems and the political ambitions of district attorneys, leads to disproportionately intense police activity and prosecutions in predominately Black neighborhoods. Quite apart from this, or, more exactly, in addition to this, neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in themselves foster high rates of violent felonies. High rates of incarceration of young Black men lead to high rates of concentrated poverty for their neighborhoods, where ineffective schools contribute to high rates of incarceration and poverty, which foster high rates of violent offensives, and so on and on. The combination of these factors put astonishing numbers of young adult Black men at risk of incarceration and give another turn to the wheel of disadvantage for their children.
Most people, particularly most African-Americans, are familiar with this situation. The question is, then, what is to be done to end disproportionate Black poverty?
The response to the question is frequently a resort to the American doctrine of individual responsibility. Issues of culture, community and psychology are, no doubt, important contributors to the achievement gap in education as well as to the disparities in incarceration rates. However, it is unclear whether they are causes or consequences. We are told that young Black men should pull up their socks (and their trousers) and simply do better in school and act better in the community. Examples of “beating the odds” and “resiliency” are featured by the media, foundations, community groups and inspirational speakers. These responses are simultaneously positive and negative ways of blaming the victims of racism and each in their own manner is a way of maintaining the system of racism. On the other hand, as we have seen, institutional policy decisions are clearly causal, definable and quantifiable and, possibly, given the public will, amenable to change. The goal, after all, is not for individuals to beat the odds. The goal is to change the odds, or, rather, to change the game.
How is that to be done?
As we have seen, there are many possible leverage points. One of the most obvious is that of disparate rates of incarceration for drug offenses, the contemporary equivalent of the vagrancy laws of the Jim Crow era. There are few who now defend laws prohibiting the private use of drugs like marijuana and the police practices associated with them. Why not change them? As we have seen, hundreds of thousands of young Black and Hispanic men are unlawfully arrested each year for purported marijuana offenses alone. To these may be added those incarcerated Black men who would not be incarcerated, or would not be incarcerated for such lengthy periods, if it were not due to the remaining disparate effects of arrests and sentencing for crack and powder cocaine and other drug offenses. Calculating a projected number of adult Black drug arrests (including both possession and sales) based on the drug arrest rate for White adults (given that the actual criminalized activity is roughly equivalent), we found that the difference between this projection and actual arrests, on average, is nearly 350,000 arrests of Black adults annually beyond the amount to be expected based on the actually equivalent drug use rates of Blacks and Whites. We can, then, work from a nominal figure of 100,000 excessive incarcerations of young adult Black men annually from inequitable drug abuse arrests. A reasonable estimate would be an annual loss to the Black community of $2 billion dollars in income. If 60,000 of those incarcerated Black men are fathers, ending disparities in drug abuse arrests could well lower the number of Black children living in poverty by something approaching that figure. Or, to put it another way, each year perhaps 60,000 Black children would not be condemned to living in poverty: 400,000 over five years, if laws like those recently adopted in the states of Washington and Colorado were applied nationally.
Or we could begin by ending disparities in school funding or, better yet, move to “challenge-based” funding formulae, such as that developed for the Abbott districts in New Jersey. This would raise male Black high school graduation rates nationally to approximately the level of male White rates. The national high school graduation rate for male White students is 78%, that for male Black students is 52%. But many suburban districts graduate male Black students at rates similar to the national graduation rates of male White students. Three large districts near Washington, D.C., do so. One, Fairfax County, Virginia, has achieved a graduation rate for male Black students of 80%. Nationally, with approximately 360,000 Black male students in ninth grade, closing the gap will produce 94,000 more male Black high school graduates each year. As incarceration rates vary with educational attainment, this will result in a lower incarceration rate for African-American men and higher incomes for both incarcerated and free Black men.
Here are some other, more detailed, if still “back of the envelope,” estimates:
The incarceration rate for Black men, ages twenty to thirty-four, without a high school diploma was 37.2% in 2008, according to Betty Pettit, while for those with a high school diploma was 9.1%. We will estimate the incarceration rate of those with some college at just over 2% and that of those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher slightly less. At a high school graduation rate of 52%, we would expect 64,300 of those not graduating to be incarcerated, 11,500 of those with a high school diploma and no further education and 1,300 of those with some college and 1,200 with a Bachelor’s degree or higher: a total of 78,000 of the cohort of 360,000. At a high school graduation rate of 78%, we would expect 29,000 of those not graduating to be incarcerated, 12,800 of the larger number of those with a high school diploma and no further education, 2,900 of those with some college and 1,200 of those attaining a Bachelor’s degree or higher: a total of 46,000: nearly 32,000 fewer.
That is the education improvement incarceration subtotal. We can then estimate the economic effects of closing the high school graduation gap. Average incomes, like incarceration rates, vary with educational attainment. In 2006 The College Board calculated the following distributions: Not a high school graduate -- $17,093; High school graduate (including GED) -- $25,418; Some College, no degree -- $31,455; Associates Degree -- $37,452; Bachelor's Degree -- $50,992; Master's Degree -- $64,456. As, unfortunately, there has been little change in incomes over the past few years, these figures will do for our estimates. Averaging incomes for “Some College, no degree” and “Associates Degree” and those for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, we can arrive at estimates of total income figures for each level of educational attainment for our grade 9 cohort once they complete schooling, deducting the numbers incarcerated at each level of educational attainment for each graduation rate. At the current graduation rate of 52%, those not graduating and not incarcerated, as a group, would be expected to earn $4.5 billion per year; those with a high school diploma and no further qualifications $1.9 billion; those with some college (estimated by doubling the number of those with an Associate’s degree), $2.4 billion and those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher $4.7 billion, for a total of $13.5 billion. At a high school graduation rate of 78%, the corresponding figures would be $850 million, $6.7 billion, $3.7 billion and $7.1 billion, for a total of $18.4 billion: an increase of $4.9 billion or 36%.
This difference in incarceration rates and incomes of young adult Black men would of course tend to alleviate overall Black childhood poverty. Forty-five percent of the 2.4 million Black children under the age of 18 living with their mother with no husband present now live in poverty. If we assume two children per family unit, we can estimate just under half a million women and just over a million children in this category. These are numbers approximating those that would be arrived at by basing an estimate on the number of incarcerated Black men. Given that over half of all prisoners have children under the age of 18, the reduction in incarcerations resulting from closing the high school graduation gap would reduce the number of those households by 16,000 and the number of children living in poverty by 32,000 each year—about 3%.
We might, for the sake of this illustration, add the benefits of ending drug law disparate incarcerations to those of closing the high school graduation gap. Our running total, then, would be approaching $7 billion annually in increased income for the Black community and 90,000 Black children removed from poverty, or $35 billion in increased income and 450,000 Black children removed from poverty over five years. This would have a compounding effect on the increase in the educational attainment level of Black children as many of their families would no longer forced to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.