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The Path to Equality
A guest essay by Clifton Roscoe
Why, many decades after the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, do the numbers tell us that, on the whole, African Americans are lagging behind their countrymen in important measures of success? The easy answer is that racism is still with us, that we black people still have a boot on our necks, and that our attempts to thrive are stymied at every turn by America’s ineradicable racial bias. In order to accept that answer, you’d have to believe that what works for other groups in the US won’t work for us, that factors like increased academic success and more family stability wouldn’t improve the lives of African Americans, even as they have so clearly improved the lives of other groups. But there is no reason that what has worked for other groups in the US cannot work for African Americans.
In this essay, TGS correspondent Clifton Roscoe does what he does best and digs up the numbers on education and family structure. In some sense, his findings aren’t that surprising. On average, those who follow the “success sequence”—obtain at least a high school degree, get a full-time job, and marry before having children—do better than those who don’t. Clifton’s piece strongly suggests that some of the most important group disparities in the US could be significantly narrowed if African Americans followed the success sequence at the same rates as other groups. Those disparities are more readily explained by a lack of “development” rather than a surfeit of “bias.” If we want true equality—not patronizing “equity”—the path is laid out before us.
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The Path to Equality
by Clifton Roscoe
America has been wrestling with racial equality since before the founding. I'm not a historian, so I won't try to recap all the major events that have occurred over the centuries. The prevailing debate, at least since the beginning of the civil rights era, has been framed in terms of black-white inequality and anti-black racism. That framing made sense during the first half of the twentieth century, but it's inadequate today. Changes in demographics and the rise in births to single mothers have had profound effects that extend well beyond what can be explained by black-white inequality and anti-black racism. What follows is an argument that frames inequality mostly in terms of family structures and education.
Let’s start with changes in demographics. America had just under 151 million residents in 1950. The population was 87% white according to data from the Wikipedia. Here's the racial breakdown (all numbers rounded to the nearest percentage point):
87% white, non-Hispanic
2% Hispanic, including all races
<1% all others
Today’s America, by contrast, has a population of 333 million people and the following racial breakdown (all numbers rounded to the nearest percentage point):
59% white, non-Hispanic
19% Hispanic, including all races
13% black, non-Hispanic
6% Asian, non-Hispanic
3% all others
These figures are from the U
.S . Census Bureau and are as of July 1, 2022. Use this link and then download the report titled, “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Single Year of Age and Sex for the United States: April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2022 (NC-EST2022-AGESEX-RES)” if you want to do a deep dive.
The percentage of babies born to unwed mothers grew by a factor of eight during the second half of the twentieth century, with most of that increase taking place between 1970 and the early 1990s.
Here's a graph from the Wikipedia that illustrates the point:
Social scientists have long wrestled with why births to unwed mothers grew so rapidly in such a short period of time. Economists George Akerlof and Janet Yellen co-authored an analysis for Brookings back in 1996 that explored several explanations for the rapid rise in births to unwed mothers. They concluded that a sharp reduction in "shotgun marriages" was responsible for much of the increase. The basic idea behind shotgun marriages was that a man who impregnated a woman who was not his wife was obligated to marry her. If he seemed reticent to do so, the bride’s father might “persuade” him with the threat of force, marching him down the aisle with a shotgun pointed at his back.
Here's an excerpt from Akerlof and Yellen's analysis:
Until the early 1970s, shotgun marriage was the norm in premarital sexual relations. The custom was succinctly stated by one San Francisco resident in the late 1960s: “If a girl gets pregnant you married her. There wasn’t no choice. So I married her.”
Since 1969, however, shotgun marriage has gradually disappeared (see table 1). For whites, in particular, the shotgun marriage rate began its decline at almost the same time as the reproductive technology shock. And the disappearance of shotgun marriages has contributed heavily to the rise in the out-of-wedlock birth rate for both white and black women. In fact, about 75 percent of the increase in the white out-of-wedlock first-birth rate, and about 60 percent of the black increase, between 1965 and 1990 is directly attributable to the decline in shotgun marriages. If the shotgun marriage rate had remained steady from 1965 to 1990, white out-of-wedlock births would have risen only 25 percent as much as they have. Black out-of-wedlock births would have increased only 40 percent as much.
You can get a sense of the impacts of changing demographics and the increase in births to unmarried women if you look at recent government data. A consistent theme is that family structures and education levels correlate with economic outcomes.
The latest Survey of Consumer Finances (2022) from the Federal Reserve, for example, included Asian family income and wealth for the first time. The report showed that black-white and Hispanic-white income and wealth gaps are still large, but the biggest takeaways were that median Asian family wealth ($536,000) is almost double that of white families ($285,000) and median Asian family income ($122,600) is 50% higher than that of white families ($81,100).
Here’s a graphic from a related Federal Reserve analysis that includes mean and median wealth for Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and whites as of 2022:
The data upends the narrative that says America's economy is constructed in a way that provides inherent advantages to whites.
So what explains how Asian families build more wealth than those of other racial groups? The short answer is stronger family structures and higher incomes derived from higher levels of education. Data from the CDC shows that Asian babies are more likely to be born to married mothers than babies from other racial groups. Here are the percentages of babies born to unmarried mothers as of 2021 by race:
Asian – 12.6%
Black – 70.1%
Hispanic – 53.2%
White – 27.5%
All races and origins – 40.0%
These numbers come from a document titled “Births: Final Data for 2021.” Use this link, download the document, and go to Table 9 if you want to do a deep dive.
The document also shows that Asian mothers are more likely to hold bachelor’s degrees than their peers and that they tend to be older when they have their first child.
Here's a breakdown of the percentages of babies born to mothers with a bachelor's degree by race from Table 11:
Asian – 67.9%
Black – 19.6%
Hispanic – 17.0%
White – 45.8%
All races and origins – 35.6%
Here's a breakdown of the ages of mothers when their first child was born by race from Table 11:
Asian – 31.2 years
Black – 25.5 years
Hispanic – 25.5 years
White – 28.1 years
All races and origins – 27.3 years
Mature, college-educated mothers with husbands can create better environments for children than most of their peers. Here's a graphic from the U.S. Census Bureau that illustrates the differences in family structures by race:
This is important because the new Survey of Consumer Finances shows large differences in income and wealth by family structure. Here’s a breakdown of median pre-tax family income by family structure and age as of 2022:
Single with children - $43,240
Single, no child, age <55 - $43,240
Single, no child, age >=55 - $36,750
Couple with children - $110,250
Couple, no child - $101,610
Here’s a breakdown of median family wealth by family structure and age as of 2022:
Single with children - $50,750
Single, no child, age <55 - $20,690
Single, no child, age >=55 - $162,920
Couple with children - $250,620
Couple, no child - $398,960
Use this link if you want to use an interactive tool to do a deep dive into data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.
Here's a breakdown of median household income by race as of 2022:
Asian - $122,600
Black - $46,000
Hispanic - $46,700
White - $81,100
The numbers follow the pattern you would expect based upon the family structures. In other words, the groups with the highest percentages of married households have the most income.
The data comes from a related Federal Reserve analysis. Use this link, download the document, and go to Table 1 if you want to do a deep dive.
I provided the wealth numbers by race earlier so I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say both sets of figures show that the groups with the highest percentages of married households have the most income and wealth.
A new book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, by University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney confirms the inherent advantages of married couple families. You can get the gist of her argument from this interview she did with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. “The Economics of Nonmarital Childbearing and the Marital Premium for Children,” a paper she co-authored, shows the positive impacts of strong family structures on children.
Kearney's book has prompted a lot of debate about the advantages of married households. Most of her peers agree with her arguments. To be fair, she has critics. They don't disagree about the advantages of married households, but they want the government to make up for the shortcomings of single parenting instead of encouraging more married households.
Strong family structures and high levels of education form a positive feedback loop when it comes to family outcomes. The benefits of a college degree in a knowledge-based economy should be obvious, but here's an abbreviated argument:
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that earnings rise and unemployment falls with education
A recent analysis from economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (a Nobel laureate) showed that people with a BA degree live 8.5 years longer than their peers without degrees
College isn't for everybody, but good jobs are available for those without degrees who have the right skills. Here's a link to a US News & World Report article that highlights several of them.
Caveat noted, here are median pre-tax family incomes as of 2022 by education level from the Survey of Consumer Finances:
No high school diploma - $32,300
High school diploma - $53,000
Some college - $60.000
College degree - $117,800
Here are the median family wealth numbers as of 2022 by education level from the Survey of Consumer Finances:
No high school diploma - $38,100
High school diploma - $106,800
Some college - $136,500
College degree - $464,600
These figures come from another related Federal Reserve document (See Tables 1 and 2 for details).
So how does this relate to race? Here are the percentages of Americans 25 and older who have a bachelor’s degree by race as of 2022 according to the National Center for Education Statistics:
Asian – 60%
Black – 28%
Hispanic – 21%
White – 42%
All – 38%
Here's a link if you want to do a deep dive (You'll have to crunch a few numbers!).
The Survey of Consumer Finances data shows that income and wealth correlate with education. People with college degrees tend to make more money and therefore have more disposable income for investing. Asians with college degrees tend to be clustered in professions that pay well, which helps explain how they're able to build more wealth than their peers. Data from the American Academy of Medical Colleges (AAMC), for example, shows that Asians accounted for 21% of America's active physicians in 2021. Data from the American Dental Association shows that Asians accounted for 19% of America's dentists as of 2022. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Asians with college degrees are clustered in high-paying STEM and business professions. Use this link and download Tables 1 and 4 if you want to do a deep dive.
So what can we learn from the numbers? Three things seem obvious:
Melissa Kearney's work and data from the latest Survey of Consumer Finances demonstrate the benefits of strong family structures, especially for children
Adherence to “The Success Sequence” (i.e., get at least a high school degree, get a full-time job, get married before having children) is essential for young people trying to make a go of it today
Households led by single parents are at a disadvantage. We shouldn't ignore them. This recent essay by Robert Cherry includes policy ideas for helping them
Race is still an issue in the lives of many Americans, but it's not nearly the obstacle to success that it was for previous generations. In today’s economy, family structures and education levels are more likely to determine your fate than the color of your skin. Not everybody wants to hear this message, but the alternative is more failed policies borne of a fundamental misreading of the issues. That will lead to persistent inequality and the continued fracturing of America along socioeconomic and racial lines.