Moynihan and Patterson Get It Wrong

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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One would have hoped that the fact that two presidents (i.e., Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and one Supreme Court Justice (i.e., Sonia Sotomayor) spent at least part of their childhoods in fatherless households would lead to a more careful and critical examination of female single-parent families. Unfortunately, this has not occurred.

James T. Patterson's New York Times op-ed, "The Moynihan Future" is built on the presumption, taken from the “Moynihan Report,” that a female single-parent family is a bad or dysfunctional family. From there, Patterson presumes that the problems facing blacks are to a large degree due to the fact that a large share of black families are female single-parent families. Patterson is wrong in both presumptions.

The share of black nonmarital births has risen dramatically since the 1960s. Patterson observes that nearly three-quarters of births among blacks today are out-of-wedlock. But while the rise in nonmarital births is real, the decline of black America has not occurred.

The lowest black poverty rate on record, 22.5 percent, occurred in 2000, 35 years after the “Moynihan Report.” The black poverty rate was twice as high the year Moynihan wrote his report. In 1970, 58.4 percent of blacks 25 to 29 years old obtained a high school diploma or GED. In 2009, 88.9 percent of blacks in this age group completed high school. In the 1970s, black communities were almost four times as violent as they are today. Black nonmarital births have increased and the black poverty rate has declined, black educational attainment has increased, and the black violent crime rate has decreased.

Moynihan and Patterson's claims fail utterly when one looks at these simple metrics. Nonmarital births have increased and negative outcomes have decreased for blacks. A number of more sophisticated studies also reject the implicit stigmatization of black female single-parent families in Moynihan and Patterson's arguments.

The most convincing one that I have found is based on a longitudinal study of children in Chicago.1 The children studied are almost all poor and almost all black. The statistical analysis conducted by the researchers allows one to compare two-parent and single-parent families across eight outcomes based on different aspects of education, employment, income and incarceration.

In none of the outcomes is there a negative effect on children from being raised by a single parent. None.

Moynihan was right that nonmarital births would increase, but he was wrong about everything else.

Of course, it is true that blacks are still much worse off than whites. But focusing on female single-parent families is a distraction from the real issues.

Patterson needs to ponder why is it that blacks with college degrees do so much worse in the labor market than similarly educated whites. And, why does the United States have the most brutal and socially destructive criminal justice system in the West with black men as its main target?

When Patterson finds answers to these questions he will not only understand the cause of black socioeconomic inequality today, he will also understand why black nonmarital birth rates are so high. Unemployed or incarcerated black men are not good marriage prospects.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

1. See Suh-Ruu Ou, Joshua P. Mersky, Arthur J. Reynolds, Kristy M. Kohler, "Alterable Predictors of Educational Attainment, Income, and Crime: Findings from an Inner-City Cohort," Social Service Review (March 2007): 85-127.

For some additional research showing that female single-parent families are not the cause of black-white inequality, see Juan Battle, Wanda Alderman-Swain, and Alia R. Tyner, “Using an Intersectionality Model to Explain the Educational Outcomes from Black Students in a Variety of Family Configurations,” Race, Gender & Class 12(1), January 2005: 126-151; Thomas DeLeire, and Leonard M. Lopoo, Family Structure and the Economic Mobility of Children (Washington D.C.: Economic Mobility Project 2010); Keith Finlay, and David Neumark, "Is Marriage Always Good for Children? Evidence from Families Affected by Incarceration," Working Paper 13928, (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research 2008); Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., Thomas D. Cook, Jacquelynne Eccles, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Arnold Sameroff, Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1999); Donna K. Ginther, and Robert A. Pollak, “Family Structure and Children’s Educational Outcomes: Blended Families, Stylized Facts, and Descriptive Regressions,” Demography 14(4), November 2004: 671-696; Gary Painter, and David I. Levine, “Daddies, Devotion, and Dollars: How Do They Matter for Youth?” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 63(4), October 2004: 813-850.

Copyright © 2005-2010 by Algernon Austin. All Rights Reserved.


What Obama Did Not Say at Hampton University: Education Alone is Not Enough

And first and foremost, your education can fortify you against the uncertainties of a 21st century economy. . . .

Jobs today often require at least a bachelor’s degree, and that degree is even more important in tough times like these. In fact, the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is over twice as high as for folks with a college degree or more.

--Remarks by President Barack Obama at Hampton University Commencement, 2010
While it is imperative that the educational attainment of black Americans be increased, education alone is not enough for black economic security. It is true that the more educated are more likely to be employed. But when looks at the issue conscious of race, the story changes.

The figure below shows the annual average unemployment rates for blacks and whites in 2009 by education level. More educated blacks are more likely to be employed than less educated blacks. The same is true for whites.
But when one compares blacks and whites with each other, it is clear that whites have a distinct advantage. Blacks with high school diplomas have unemployment rates that are equivalent to white high school dropouts. Blacks with college degrees only do modestly better at finding work than whites with high school diplomas.

More education is necessary but not sufficient to secure equal opportunity for blacks in the labor market. A strong commitment to ensuring racial justice is required across the nation. As the Tea Party becomes stronger, however, America's already weak commitment to ensuring equal opportunity will get even weaker.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2005-2010 by Algernon Austin. All Rights Reserved.


Understanding Poverty in America

Listening to the popular American conventional wisdom on poverty, one would assume that high rates of poverty are a unique American disease caused by the supposed dysfunction of the black American population. One does not hear that, in fact, most rich countries have high rates of poverty--before taxes and transfers.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides data that allows one to compare poverty in the United States with other countries. For international comparative purposes, I define the poverty rate as the percent of the population that has to live on less than 50 percent of the median income. This definition is common in comparative analyses.

By this definition, before taxes and transfers, the United States’ poverty rate does not standout. The United States falls in the middle of the pack among rich countries. Examining 23 rich OECD countries, the United States was the 12th highest.

In the United States, in the mid-2000s, 26.3 percent of the population was in poverty before taxes and transfers. In Italy, Germany, Belgium and Greece about a third of the population was poor before taxes and transfers. France, Australia, Sweden, and Japan all had higher rates of poverty. The United Kingdom tied with the United States.

Where the United States stood out was in the poverty rate after taxes and transfers. In most countries, people understand that capitalism produces inequality, that the rich have advantages over poorer citizens, that poverty is damaging to people's lives, and that more equal societies have better social outcomes. In these societies, people use taxes and transfers to produce a more equitable and better functioning society.

After taxes and transfers, the United States had the highest poverty rate among rich OECD countries. After taxes and transfers, the U.S. poverty rate was 17.1 percent. Japan was the next closest with 14.9 percent. Although the United Kingdom had exactly the same poverty rate as the United States before taxes and transfers, the UK poverty rate dropped to 8.3 percent after taxes and transfers--half the U.S. rate. Sweden which had a higher before-taxes-and-transfers poverty rate than the United States, dropped its poverty rate to 5.3 percent after taxes and transfers--tied for the lowest with Denmark.

The United States has such a high poverty rate after taxes and transfers because we choose to. We are far richer than nearly all of the other rich OECD countries, but we are also far stingier. We like our capitalism brutal. As the Tea Party gains more power, expect an even more brutal country, with more poverty.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2005-2010 by Algernon Austin. All Rights Reserved.


America's Upside Down Politics

One group is managing pretty well despite the Great Recession, and many of them benefit from big government social programs like medicare and social security. This group, however, is angry as hell and rails against "big government."

Another group is being hammered by the Great Recession, and they are being disproportionately hurt by cuts in government spending, yet, they are relatively quiet and convinced that everything is going to be alright.

This is the upside-down world of American politics. The former group is the Tea Party movement, and the latter group are blacks.

A New York Times/CBS poll finds that the members of the Tea Party movement are more likely than the general public to be doing well financially. They also tend to be white and over 45 years old.

Perhaps the most illuminating finding of the New York Times research into the movement is this:
Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security — the biggest domestic programs, suggesting instead a focus on “waste.” 
Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits.

Others could not explain the contradiction.

“That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. “I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”
For Tea Partiers, "big government" does not refer to the biggest government programs--the military, social security, and medicare--it refers to any program that might disproportionately benefit people who are not white and well-off--no matter how small the program.
In a word, when they say they want to take back "their" country, they mean it. In their view, the government is supposed to be for the white middle class and the white middle class only. All other people need to find some other country to live in.

Blacks are being hammered financially by the Great Recession. They are experiencing massive job, income, home, and wealth losses. The government programs that they would turn to in these times of need are being cut or eyed for cuts. Instead of protesting so that politicians are motivated to do something to help them, blacks are still stuck in Obama-euphoria land. They are more likely to say that things are better off now than five years ago, when this is clearly not true.

Because the screaming wheel gets the oil, the well-off and white Tea Party folks will shape American politics and the quiet black masses will not. The government will do more to help and to appease the white and comfortable while enacting policies that neglect or harm people of color.When will blacks wake up and see that they are being hit hardest by the Great Recession?