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.


Black Homelessness a Sign of Where History Still Needs to Go

February 14, 2017

Well, we’re still In the midst of commotions created by our President and his choices for some top-level officials.

We’re also in the midst of Black History Month — a time when we’re supposed to pay more attention than we usually do to important people and events that brought blacks in America and thus America itself to where we are now.

A worthwhile endeavor. We may even discover the up-and-coming Frederick Douglass.

I’m taking a different tack, though one that’s far from unique. Where does the black stream of American history have yet to go? That’s a much larger question than I’m prepared — or indeed, suitable — to answer.

So I’ll d return to an issue that’s still drawing people to my blog — why homeless people don’t work or do, but are homeless anyway.

My last post on the issue ended with a bare mention of race discrimination. I left it hanging because it’s one of those complex cause-effect factors.

I’ll try to disentangle some of them here, conscious that I’m over-simplifying what merits a book, but also that those factors speak to the larger question I led off with.

Black Over-Represented Among Homeless

Homelessness itself is as good a starting point as any, since it’s unusually common for blacks. They represent 39.1% of all homeless people, according to the latest breakout from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s less than 10% smaller than the percent of homeless whites — and nearly three times the percent of blacks in the U.S. population as a whole.

High Black Poverty Rates

Nobody needs a post to tell them that people of all races are homeless because they can’t afford housing. That itself is over-simple. Some can afford housing, with or without a subsidy, but still may still have no safe, stable place to live.

Criminal records pose a barrier to both privately-owned and public housing. More on that below. We need here to recall that they’re not the only records that can keep people out of housing they can afford.

Merely having been poor at some time in the past can keep people out — even housing a federal voucher would subsidize — because landlords commonly check credit histories. Not out of idle curiosity, of course.

But lack of ready money accounts for a lot. And the black poverty rate, like the homeless rate is disproportionately high — and has been ever since the Census Bureau started breaking out its survey results by race.

Which takes us to work issues. Obviously, since people who have good-paying jobs can pay for housing, though not necessarily where they want it. And, as we all know, the readiest path to those jobs, is a good education.

Labor Market Disadvantages Linked to Persistent Segregation

Blacks’ disadvantages in the labor market date back to slavery, when some freed by former masters or self-liberated worked for pay, but far more, still-enslaved were denied any education.

The Jim Crow laws that replaced slavery didn’t prohibit educating blacks, but generally allowed it only in schools that were, as the Supreme Court eventually found, “separate but unequal,” inherently so, though they were also often unequal in other ways.

Federal laws notwithstanding, blacks remain segregated in many communities due in part to local housing policies, e.g., zoning, discriminatory housing practices, and vestiges of past discrimination by the federal government.

Disadvantages to living in neighborhoods — or whole communities — where policies have concentrated blacks are themselves a cause-effect tangle, reflected in the high black poverty rate.

A major, though not the only reason for the rate is lack of marketable skills — literacy, including now computer proficiency and, beyond that, a formal education credential, which employers use as a threshold sign of those skills.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less money than those in well-off neighborhoods and they need more to ensure that the disadvantages of poverty don’t hold children back.

This issue is far from new and hasn’t garnered much by way of consensus on solutions. I may return to it, especially now that desegregation and equal educational opportunities have again become front-page controversies.

For now, the end result will have to suffice. For too many black youth, it’s is lack of a high-school diploma or the equivalent — the minimal qualification for most jobs — and virtually all paying enough to make housing affordable.

Growing up and going to school in a high-poverty neighborhood may not altogether account for this. We’ve also got some persuasive evidence that black students don’t get a fair shake.

For example, they’re far more likely than their white peers to incur punishments that not only deter them from learning, but can tempt them into criminal behaviors — or at the very least, gain them criminal records. And so we loop back ….

Disproportionate Criminal Justice

It’s common knowledge by now that our criminal justice system sweeps in a far higher percent of blacks than whites. Police practices of various sorts put them at higher risk, according to reliable local investigations..

We’ve reasons to question whether they’re treated equally thereafter — how they’re charged, if at all, whether they’re actually sent to jail or prison, whether they’re sent back for failing to comply with parole requirements they can’t meet, including payments of court fees and fines.

Now, as I said, public housing authorities and owners of federally-subsidized housing must bar people who’ve been convicted of certain drug offenses, but some go considerably further.

Private-sector landlords generally may pick and choose tenants, though with a recently-announced constraint that may not remain a federal fair housing enforcement policy.

The weeding out helps account for the high black homeless rate. Whether sheltered or living in some place “not meant for human habitation,” homeless people are likely to be on the streets most of each day.

That in itself can lead to a criminal record, even for such harmless behaviors as resting on a park bench or sleeping under a bridge because there’s no room in a shelter—or the shelter’s too unsafe.

And so we’ve got a loop-closer, though hardly one that accounts for either the high black homeless rate or the closely-related poverty rate.

Like the other factors I’ve cited, these are more or less systemic. We mustn’t, however, levy the whole blame on systems. Every one of the factors I’ve cited affords evidence of out-and-out discrimination.

Another piece of the puzzle I’ll have to leave for another day. But even this much means, of course, that we’ve every reason to recognize the many millions who overcame — and did so much to make many of our worst policies past history.

But it also reminds us that we’ve got a long way to go — and right now, urgent needs to preserve the progress we’ve made.


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.


Election Rigged, But Not As He Says

November 7, 2016

I’m thinking, as I’m sure you all are, about the election. Hard, in fact, to think about anything else today. This much we know. It’s rigged, though not as one prospective sore loser has said.

We’re familiar by now with the barriers states have erected, especially since the Supreme Court hobbled enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

But here’s an old one that will prevent an estimated 6.1 million U.S. citizens from voting tomorrow — state laws that disenfranchise people who’ve been convicted of felonies. More than three-quarters of them have fully paid their “debt to society.”

Like the voter ID laws, the contraction of early voting periods and the like, the felon disenfranchisement laws deny voting rights to a far higher percent of blacks than citizens of other races.

Roughly four times as many, the Sentencing Project reports — or roughly one in thirteen, as compared to one in fifty-six. And like the other laws and practices, the most exclusionary are in Southern states.

Florida and Virginia, which pundits have viewed as swing states during this Presidential election cycle, bar more than one in five blacks from voting because of a felony conviction.

The top four states all have Republican-controlled legislatures. And all but one — Virginia — have Republican governors too.

Virginia’s governor recently moved to restore voting rights to all former felons who were no longer on probation or parole. Blocked by a court after the Republican House and Senate leaders, joined by four other voters sued.

Do we detect a partisan interest in the felon disenfranchisement laws? For sure. But the laws are rooted in racism, as The New York Times editorial board explains.

Briefly, the harshest laws date back to the days when Southern states sought to prevent blacks from exercising the voting rights granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

The laws prohibiting felons from voting were an early and common way to avert “the menace of Negro domination,” as the candid president of Alabama’s constitutional convention put it. States, of course, doubled down with poll taxes, literacy tests and other formidably challenging  requirements.

Fast forward to the late 1960s. A number of states began to pare back their felon disenfranchisement laws. Yet the number of ex-felons denied the right to vote grew — from fewer than 1.8 million in 1976 to the projected 6.1 million.

The rate of black disenfranchisement due to felony convictions has grown accordingly. In 1980, laws in only two states barred more than 10% — neither, incidentally, in the South. Today, laws in nine do.

We all know what accounts for this — our war on crime, especially drug-related crimes, including mere possession and petty dealing. Nearly 40% of people behind bars for drug law violations are blacks, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Looked at another way, blacks are about 10 times as likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense as whites, though the best data we have indicate that use rates barely differ.

We can’t, I think, attribute the glaring difference in incarceration rates entirely — or even mostly — to race discrimination in courtrooms, though we can’t rule that out either.

Police forces generally don’t patrol well-off neighborhoods, looking for people taking a toke or selling a bag. And those who live there — mostly whites — usually don’t sell drugs on street corners anyway, as Christopher Ingraham at Wonkblog points out.

If well-off people do get arrested, they’ll have lawyers to negotiate plea bargains so as to reduce the offense they’re charged with to a misdemeanor — or to mount vigorous defenses.

Poor and near-poor people must rely on public defenders, who’ve got far too many clients to represent as effectively as the right to counsel requires.

Even if well-off people are convicted of a felony, they’ll have the money to pay the fines and fees that courts often levy. Doing that is frequently required to end a period of probation or parole.

And that will restore voting rights to ex-felons in 18 states, assuming they’ve satisfied all other conditions. But dozen impose lifetime bans on at least some people ever convicted of any felony.

So a middle-aged black man in Florida who’s been active in Democratic politics recently learned he can’t vote because of a petty drug crime he committed 30 years ago. “I don’t have a voice,” he says. “I’m like an anonymous person.”

He, no longer anonymous, represents a very large number of Americans who’ll have no voice in decisions that will powerfully affect their lives — and ours.

An injustice piled on top of injustices that go along way to explaining why they lack a right many of us still take for granted, legal and possibly illegal voter suppressions notwithstanding.