Same Personal Choices, But Lesser Results for Blacks

February 20, 2017

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.


Yawning Opportunity Gap for Our Kids Because We Don’t View Them All As Ours

November 27, 2016

A recently-published book by Professor Robert Putnam warns that the American Dream is in crisis. We’ve had ample evidence of the symptoms for some time. But the fundamental issues Putnam raises seem to me more relevant than ever.

Other research has already told us that children who grow up in low-income families tend to remain low-income as adults, who then have low-income children, etc. Conversely, children who grow up in well-off families generally remain well-off. And so forth.

We’ve also had research showing that whom you’re born to has become more determinative in the last 30 or 40 years — a major point for Putnam.

He focuses on two related reasons. First, the “opportunity gap,” i.e., disparities in the resources parents and communities invest in children, has grown.

And second, we no longer think of everybody’s children as “our kids” because families have become increasingly segregated by income, education, neighborhood and related measures.

Thus, well-off families invest in their own children and what their own children will directly benefit from, e.g., the schools they attend. But they neither know much nor care much about the opportunities for children in the depressed neighborhoods across town.

We’re on our way to becoming a society where class is hereditary, he told a recent gathering (and those of us virtually present). The graphs he showed confirmed the basis for the alarm bells he’s trying to set off.

He referred to most of them as “scissors graphs” because the lines tracking the developmental opportunities children have grow further and further apart over time. Likewise factors he views as related, e.g., two parents in the home.

Now, the opportunities he dwells on don’t altogether explain why children born to poor and near-poor parents tend to remain stuck in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

Those resources their parents don’t have include money for food, decent, stable housing in a safe neighborhood, high-quality child care (unless they’re among the shrinking number for whom it’s subsidized), diapers …. Well, I needn’t go on with this inventory.

We know from other research that food insecurity, homelessness or even just moving from one home to another and then another and the stress parents inevitably communicate when they’re struggling with such things all put children at a disadvantage in the classroom.

We know that low-income children often don’t benefit from high-quality early education. Lack of resources, parental and public, mean that inequalities begin at “the starting gate,” as the Economic Policy Institute entitles its report on the problem.

This, I think, is why Putnam says that schools aren’t to blame for the widening income gap, though they don’t narrow it either. But he cites a related factor that, in his view, is — the unequal opportunities children have to participate in extracurricular activities.

Playing organized sports or in a band or orchestra, he says, teaches teamwork and develops what’s now often called grit — the will to keep working at something, despite setbacks and frustrations.

All children used to have opportunities of this sort. They now cost, on average, $800 a year, he says. That’s nothing, of course, for well-off parents, but more than some low-income parents can afford.

Even low-income children who beat the odds and not only graduate from high school, but go on to college don’t overcome the opportunity gap. Only 29% who scored high on standardized tests graduate, while 74% of high-income students do.

The difference here, Putnam says, is mostly not tuition costs or the formidable loans that all but well-off students must incur to gain a degree.

It’s rather a reflection of the investments parents made much earlier — the time they spent interacting with their infants and toddlers, the dinners that brought the whole family together, the religious services they attended, etc.

What this seems to mean is that the low-income students are in some way not prepared for college, test scores notwithstanding. I find this baffling.

Even if what Putnam calls our “pay to play” extracurricular system denied them an opportunity develop grit, they surely have it or they wouldn’t have learned what those test scores reflect, given the well-known problems of the schools they’re likely to have attended.

More baffling is the way he slides over the link between early opportunities children have — or don’t — and the color of their skin, a point the Washington Post‘s reviewer touched on.

If the time and money parents have to invest in their children is correlated to their income, then race discrimination, both past and present, deserves far more attention.

Putanm tends to use parental education, rather than income per se in his analyses — this, it seems, because he’s most concerned about the divide between social classes.

We’ve always had large racial disparities in college-level degrees. But even blacks who’ve graduated from college generally get paid less than whites, as the Economic Policy Institute’s analyses show.

If relatively more low-income children have only a mother to provide the interactions he views as so critical, it’s partly because most low-income women (like their better-off counterparts) want to marry reliable breadwinners.

So the disadvantages black men suffer in our labor market, e.g., higher unemployment rates, lower wages, help explain why a high percent of black mothers are single.

If low-income black children don’t always have fathers investing quality time in them, it’s also in part because our criminal justice system puts a disproportionate number of black men behind bars, thus giving them an additional disadvantage when they’re released.

And if communities consist of class-based enclaves, that’s partly because of discriminatory zoning and other housing policies — and discriminatory practices by lenders, real estate agents and landlords.

Putnam’s nevertheless right in saying that policy choices have widened the opportunity gap — and that policy choices can narrow it. Those he recommends are themselves fairly narrow.

This perhaps is because, as he stresses, he’s trying to start a national conversation about a problem that’s got no simple, quick fixes. But it’s also because he’s focused on children, especially the very young — and on what could conceivably prove politically feasible.

So nothing new here, as Jill Lepore’s account in The New Yorker says. But we don’t need new as much as do. And, as she also (sort of) says, we can’t count on much do from our federal policymakers.

The book is nevertheless timely — more so than I think Putnam expected — because it calls on us to consider whom we view as our kids and, more broadly, as members of our community.


Income Growth Did a Lot to Push Poverty Rates Down

September 14, 2016

I think my quick-off-the-dime post on the new official poverty rates didn’t give enough credit to household income increases as a reason they virtually all declined. Progressive analysts quickly heralded the significant income growth the new report shows.

The “typical family’s income,” i.e., the median for all households, increased by a record amount, whether you look at the dollars or the year-over-year percent, said Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein.

The one-year real-dollar growth was greatest for the bottom fifth of the income scale, the Economic Policy Institute reported, while stressing that all but the top five percent still haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.

So here’s a brief look at the income side of the ledger — and a few policy-related remarks.

The “typical family” gained a bit over $2,800, making for an estimated 5.2% increase. All the major types of households the Census Bureau reports on, e.g., married couples, single-mother families, gained in varying amounts.

Likewise all the major race/ethnicity groups. Most of those that had suffered the worst losses during the Great Recession gained the most, EPI later noted. But the percent gains didn’t vary much. So the gaps remain very large.

The median income for black households, for example, was roughly $26,000 less than the median for white non-Hispanic households — and the median for Hispanic households $17,800 less.

But the median for Asian households topped them all at $77,166. This confirms the underlying disparities I noted in reporting the Asian poverty rate.

We also see continuing marked disparities between married couples with children and single-parent families — single-mother families especially.

Their median income was about $37,800, as compared to $84,626 for the married couples. The estimated increase for both was about the same. So at least single-mother families seem not to be losing ground, though a far higher percent still lived in poverty.

Some Republicans predictably accentuated the negative. “Billions of dollars” invested each year, “but more than 43 million people continue to live in poverty,” said the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman.

But public policies do help account for the income gains — and thus the lower poverty rates. Greenstein cites several.

First off, the labor market is getting tighter — a factor economist/blogger Jared Bernstein stresses. Employers have generally found they have to pay more to get (and keep) the workers they need.

The Federal Reserve has done its share by keeping interest rates very low, rather than raising them, as it often has when the unemployment rate drops to a level that could trigger more than a miniscule inflation increase.

Second, employers in 23 states and the District of Columbia had to raise wages for their lowest-paid workers due to minimum wage increases. More local governments set their minimum wages above their state’s level — or had earlier passed laws requiring increases.

Minimum wage increases generally have what economists call “spillover effects,” i.e., raises employers put in place to preserve differences between their lowest-paid and somewhat better-paid workers.

So the recent increases almost surely help explain the higher median household incomes, perhaps especially the boost for the bottom fifth.

Yet “there is more to be done,” as the Coalition on Human Needs headlined its executive director’s response to the Census Bureau’s official and supplemental poverty measure reports. Even more to be done than the measures she singles out, as she would be the first to say.

I’ll follow her lead because once one really gets into what policymakers could do to raise incomes enough — and for enough people — to make poverty a rare, brief experience a post (or statement) turns into a treatise.

She does, however, make two points I’ll borrow because they speak to how I’ve gone at the new Census figures. One addresses the disparities in both poverty rates and incomes.

Steps like a federal minimum wage increase, funding to expand affordable child care and reforms in the Earned Income Tax Credit “wouldn’t just have the effect of lifting all boats.” They’d address income inequalities — not only between non-Hispanic whites and racial and ethnic minorities, but between men and women.

The other point is that we need to do all we can to ensure that our policymakers do no harm. Those grumblings about the billions foretell further efforts to cut federal anti-poverty programs until they can be drowned in a bathtub.

 

 


What We Look for in Child Care for Little Kids and Why

April 25, 2016

When I was three, I was sent for half the day to what was called a nursery school, though it included a kindergarten for the five-year-olds. It truly was a nursery and garden for growing children.

Lots of outdoor space. A little house among the trees. “Wheel toys” to push or pedal up and down the paved drive. Two playgrounds — sandboxes, a jungle gym with rings to hang from.

Easels with pots of tempera and big brushes, jars of finger paints, mounds of molding clay. Time together in  circles, where we sang and had stories read to us. And caring teachers. I recall a sad little boy snuggled up in a teacher’s lap.

I’ve no idea how much the school cost. It couldn’t have been all that much because my parents didn’t have all that much to spend on what today we call “enrichment.” That’s partly because my father was the sole family breadwinner.

The upside of that was a mother with ample time to spend on free enriching experiences for me — and later, my sibs.

Child Care Not So Optional Now

Fast forward more years than I care to mention. Sending children to some form of child care isn’t just something parents like mine can do to give their kids opportunities for creative play, hands-on-learning, socializing, etc.

It’s often a necessity because they’ve got to have someone caring for their kids while they work for pay — or go to school or training to prepare for that. And making sure the kids are safe, fed and diapered, if they’re very young, is only part of it.

Care like what I got is extra important for low-income parents, working or otherwise, because their kids often need learning experiences they don’t get a home.

Without them, they’ll begin school already behind. And their parents probably can’t do enough to catch them up for the same reasons they didn’t — and most likely couldn’t — do what would have put them on a level playing field from the get-go.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that low-income children still start kindergarten with less developed skills — both cognitive, e.g., reading, math, and non-cognitive, e.g., persistence or, as it’s often called now, grit, the ability to work with and simply get along with peers.

These relative disadvantages increase over time, showing up in test score gaps, graduation rates, employment prospects and so forth. In short, lifelong inequalities begin “at the starting gate,” as the report’s title indicates.

Major Childcare Issues for Families and Policymakers

We’ve got two big issues, I think. One is access, the other quality. They’re obviously issues for parents, especially those who’ve got limited, if any income to spend on child care.

They’re also issues for our country — and thus our policymakers — because the growth and fairness of our economy hinges on the opportunities we provide for children who’ll otherwise remain stuck in poverty or near-poverty.

And they’re issues for all of us in the nation’s capital, where some 32,000 children under six live in families with no non-working parent and childcare costs are extraordinarily high — a special challenge for the low-income parents of about 10,440 children too young for preschool.

Much to cover — in part because we have a wealth of research, in part because the childcare system is a complex business and, in part, because, as I hope to show, the two issues I’ve laid out converge in a third.

So I’ll leave off here and tackle access and quality in separate posts. You can guess, I suppose, what links them and will loom large in both.

It’s money, both how much families have (or don’t) and how much government programs supply. Not enough, as you also probably guessed.