Same Personal Choices, But Lesser Results for Blacks

As my recent post on black homelessness suggested, we’ve got various substantive explanations for the disadvantages so many blacks face in the labor market. These basically boil down to the qualifications employers look for — and past experiences that turn them off.

But we can’t altogether discount out-in-out discrimination — or something close enough to produce the same result. A recent intriguing recent study tends to cast doubts on color-blind hiring and other employment decisions, e.g., wages, promotions.

At least as importantly, it bolsters challenges to a still-common explanation for poverty, including the persistently high black poverty rates. A bit of context and then key findings.

Personal Responsibility in the Poverty Debate

Fiscal and social conservatives have long linked poverty to failures of personal responsibility. The law that ended welfare as we knew it — significantly entitled the Personal Work Responsibility and Opportunity Reconciliation Act — effectively set a five-year limit for poor parents to shape up.

And it requires states to punish parents who don’t regularly engage in the work-readiness and/or job search activities prescribed for them. Implicitly, parents need threats of total income loss to make choices that someone else has decided are the most responsible for them.

Work activity requirements aren’t the only way that both the federal law and some state laws embed a view of personal responsibility. The goals Congress set, for example, include promoting marriage, as if marrying — and staying married — were choices in favor of less (or no) reliance on public benefits.

Sixteen states* still have laws embedding a very old notion of personal irresponsibility, i.e., choosing to remain financially dependent on government benefits. The choice in this case is having more children so as to get larger benefits.

So-called family caps surely gained traction because those mothers, like other alleged welfare-gougers, were so commonly identified as black — a racist stereotype promoted, but not originated by former President Reagan.

Top Personally-Responsible Choices

In the mid 2000s, two senior analysts at the Brookings Institution crunched a lot of data and concluded that teens and working-age adults can reduce their chances of poverty to a mere 2% if they did three things — graduate from high school, get a job, then marry, but not until 21 and only then have children.

Both the analysts — Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill — are thoughtful people, genuinely concerned with poverty, not in casting blame on the millions of poor people in this country. Nor did they use their findings to claim that a high-school diploma and a marriage license guarantee anyone a poverty-free life.

On the contrary, they proposed policies to essentially make those choices pay off and broadened the range later in work with other colleagues. See, for example, the recent agenda co-authored by Sawhill.

Some social conservatives, however, seized on the three personal choices to shift responsibility to individuals alone. Some of you may recall, for example, former (and perhaps still-hopeful) Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s speech at the 2012 Republican convention.

Unequal Outcomes From Following the Steps

Analysts at the Brookings Institution returned to the three steps — or, as they refer to them, norms or rules. They’ve somewhat refined these since Haskins and Sawhill published the original set.

The second step is now either getting and keeping a full-time job or having a partner (not necessarily a spouse who does). Sawhill herself seems now to envision personally—and financially–responsible motherhood without benefit of clergy. But that’s fodder for a whole separate post and off-topic here.

The new Brookings’ analysis finds that blacks are about as likely as whites to complete the first step, but about 14% less likely to have a full-time job or live with anyone else that does. So we’ve got, at the very least, indications of discrimination in the labor market.

But what about blacks who took all three steps? Well, things don’t turn out for them as well they do for whites. The measure here is middle-class status — an income three times the federal poverty line. That was $70,650 for two parents with two children in 2013, the survey year the analysts used.

Seventy-three percent of whites either achieved or remained middle-class, while only 59% of blacks did. So there’s a 14% black-white gap in the low-income group. What percents so low as to be officially poor we don’t know.

We do know, however, that the gap closes in the next 200% of the FPL range and then widens again. So when we reach what I suppose most people would consider wealthy — more than about $1.6 million for our four-person family — we find nearly twice as many whites as blacks.

In short, playing by these rules seems, as the original research promised, to significantly reduce the likelihood of poverty in a given year. But other factors point to inequities within our system.

We have research indicating discriminatory hiring — for example, the oft-sited study of what happened when employers received resumes with identical credentials, but some with names likely to flag the applicants as blacks.

We know that success in the labor market hinges on factors beyond the Brookings’ scope — post-secondary education, for example, and family resources for a whole lot of things, e.g., contributions to that education, connections, the money to pay for rent, food and the like during unpaid internships.

We nevertheless have in the Brookings research a good rebuttal of the still-persistent view that poverty and near-poverty generally reflect failures of personal responsibility — or, as Rich Lowry at The National Review recently put it, lack “the moral agency” to “honor ..[the] “basic norms” originally set forth at Brookings.

* The source I’ve linked to includes California, which only recently repealed its cap.

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