Black Boys in Crisis: What Does the Growing Income Gap Mean for Black Boys?
In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
As we have seen, more African-American families than ever are living in poverty or low-income situations. More black children are living in single-parent households, usually with their mother, where there are fewer opportunities for economic advancement. The statistics are staggering, and they are not improving. For African-American boys, the growing income gap between families living in poverty and the highest economic sector means fewer opportunities than ever before.
Lack of Educational Opportunities
The lack of educational opportunities for African-American boys begins in early childhood. It is not the result of uninterested parents; in fact, the opposite is true. In today’s society, middle-class and affluent parents are spending more money on books, toys, trips, experiences, and schools for their children. They have recognized that in today’s increasingly competitive global market, their children need richer experiences, such as language lessons and cultural immersion, to develop the skills that will help them get into top colleges and secure high-paying jobs.
However, low-income families simply can’t keep up with the Joneses. Most of these experiences cost money—payment for private lessons, tuition to private schools, and even museum admission—that low-income families don’t have at their disposal. In fact, as wealthier families are spending more on their children, low-income families are spending less. Parents in the lower 50 percent of the income distribution are spending less on their children over the last fifteen years than they did in the 1990s—likely as a result of inflation, increased cost of living, and decreased job security.
Critics of state and federal aid programs assume that these low-income parents are not working, and are spending their aid money on drugs, alcohol, or other luxuries instead of on their children, but the research indicates that this is not true. According to two separate studies, one in the US and one in Great Britain, researcher Jane Waldfogel found that parents’ disposable income is more often than not spent on items for children or items for work, like professional clothing or transportation.
While the ability of families to provide extracurricular enrichment for their children is not tied to any particular race, it does affect African-American children the most because a disproportionally high number of black children live in poverty. The effects are clear when you look at the school performance of African-American children, especially boys. Having a variety of early-childhood experiences is directly related to the development of children’s vocabulary, and having a strong and rich vocabulary is linked to reading skills.
In 2009, fourth-grade African-American boys living in US cities scored significantly lower in reading and math achievement than white boys. While 38 percent of white boys were proficient in reading, only 11 percent of black boys were. The differences are even more glaring when comparing achievement in math. Of this same group, 53 percent of white boys were proficient in math, compared to only 14 percent of black boys. This lack of proficiency, coupled with inadequate schooling for many low-income students, follows African-American boys through middle and high school and ultimately results in only 54 percent of African-American students graduating from high school.
Even if they do manage to graduate from high school, African-American males do not tend to fare well in academia. In 2008, black males comprised only 5 percent of the college population. Compare this to the fact that in 2008, black males made up 36 percent of the prison population. While failure in college or incarceration cannot and should not be directly linked to a lack of early childhood experiences, there is no denying that the income gap has an effect on the situation of African-American boys.
Lack of Employment Opportunities
Once African-American boys reach an employable age, their opportunities to earn income to support themselves or their families are not as prevalent as they were in previous generations. Cities in the historic “Rust Belt”—the older cities found in the Northeast and Midwest—have large concentrations of African-Americans. In the last thirty years, job growth has stagnated or plummeted in these cities as technology-based jobs are replacing traditional manufacturing jobs. While employment between 1991 and 2001 increased by 25 percent in the US, it only increased by 3 percent or less in these Rust Belt cities.
For African-American men who have limited experience and education, entry-level jobs are primarily in the service industry. For black males, this means that not only is race potentially holding them back; so is gender. Women fill most of the service jobs, such as wait staff, sales clerks, and nursing aides. Instead of being perceived as friendly, inviting, and welcoming to customers, young black men are perceived as threatening or dangerous regardless of their actual skills, perceptions that employers do not want in their service staff.
The pervasive stereotype of the African-American male is preventing them from obtaining and retaining employment in these customer-service jobs. Without opportunities for employment before earning industry experience or advanced education, which statistics say is unlikely for many black boys, there are few chances for them to change their social situation.
Even for African-American boys who secure stable employment, their earning potential is less than similarly educated white men. According to a 2006 study conducted by the US Department of Commerce, black males will earn less on average than white males with similar levels of education, regardless of what that education is. For example, white males who have master’s degrees will earn an average yearly salary of $88,427, while black males with the same degree will only earn $64,456. For men who have a high school diploma or GED but no college degree, white men will earn on average $35,307 while black men will earn $25,418.
Downward Social Mobility
In the wake of inadequate education and employment opportunities, African-Americans, particularly those in the middle class, are experiencing a period of downward social mobility. Research conducted by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution and a 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago concluded that black children born into middle-class families are likely to be in a lower socioeconomic tier than their parents when they are adults.
As this article has articulated, the income gap has dire consequences for black boys, who are already at the bottom of the economic totem pole. Who is to blame for this income gap? Is it centuries of oppression and institutional racism? Is it the culture of victimology that causes some black boys to engage in self-sabotage? We can keep pointing figures and engage in the blame game, or we can take action. In the comments below, let us know what you think should be done to close the income gap in the black community.