Overcoming Black Poverty

Overcoming Black Poverty

The other evening I watched a talk-show debate between two Black analysts on the problem of poverty among inner city Black youth. Their views couldn’t have been farther apart at the outset and they didn’t grow any closer as the exchange continued.

One argued that the main problem is low wages and lack of employment opportunity for young Blacks and the solution is for the government to raise the minimum wage and expand job opportunities. The other disagreed, contending that the root problem is the staggering out-of-wedlock birthrate among Blacks, and the solution to most economic and social problems in the Black community is to change attitudes toward marriage and parenthood.

The argument has grown more intense in recent years, and the advocates for government economic initiatives seem to have the advantage. The main reason is their linking Black problems to discrimination and/or racism, thus intimidating white audiences into supporting their proposed solutions.

But would increasing the minimum wage help overcome Black poverty? The conclusion of many scholars, both Black and white, is that it would worsen the problem. Thomas Sowell notes that the main outcome of raising wages to artificial levels is that employers eliminate jobs, with the resulting unemployment falling “disproportionately on lower skilled workers, younger and inexperienced workers, and workers from minority groups.” Walter E. Williams agrees, calling the minimum wage “maximum folly.”

Mark Wilson of the Cato Institute cites a review of 50 years of research on the minimum wage. Among the negative effects it was found to cause are these: leading employers to cut the workforce, decreasing worker training and fringe benefits, discouraging part-time work, and encouraging the hiring of illegal aliens.

What of the opposing contention, that the root problem of Black poverty is the out-of-wedlock birthrate? How well is that supported by the evidence?

In 1992, sociologist and then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) published “Defining Deviancy Down.” His central idea was that many of our social problems are caused or aggravated by the growing tendency to approve behavior that earlier generations disapproved. Here are some excerpts from his study:

There is a mountain of scientific evidence showing that when families disintegrate children often end up with intellectual, physical, and emotional scars that persist for life…. We talk about the drug crisis, the education crisis, and the problems of teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. But all these ills trace back predominantly to one source: broken families.

Thirty years ago, 1 in every 40 white children was born to an unmarried mother; today [in 1992] it is 1 in 5, according to Federal data. Among blacks, 2 of 3 children are born to an unmarried mother; 30 years ago the figure was 1 in 5 . . . And yet there is little evidence that these facts are regarded as a calamity in municipal government. To the contrary, there is general acceptance of the situation as normal.

. . . There is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure—that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable.

When Moynihan’s study was published, it was treated in a way all too common in the political community—it was first hailed as a brilliant analysis, and then studiously ignored.

Moynihan has not been alone in pointing to the virtual dissolution of the Black family as the cause of economic and social problems in the Black community. For example, in 2005 a Princeton/Brookings study by Paul R. Amato concluded as follows:

Research clearly demonstrates that children growing up with two continuously married parents are less likely than other children to experience a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and social problems, not only during childhood, but also in adulthood . . . Compared with other children, those who grow up in stable, two-parent families have a higher standard of living, receive more effective parenting, experience more cooperative co-parenting, are emotionally closer to both parents (especially fathers), and are subjected to fewer stressful events and circumstances.

If media pundits and government officials had embraced the insights and heeded the warnings of Moynihan, Amato, and other scholars, economic and social problems might still exist in the Black community, but we would have made progress toward solving them. But the insights were instead ignored and the condition of many Black families continues to worsen. The situation does a great disservice to Black Americans, and it does not bode well for America’s future.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero