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Equality of Opportunity: Black Boys and Missing Dads

The media again missed vital details of a study released this week on the role of fathers in the lives of black boys.

Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues Nathan Hendren, Maggie Jones, and Sonya Porter, released an important new paper that provides a wealth of data as always about the intersection of race, poverty, and intergenerational mobility, and their research raises more questions about how to help black men succeed — and pass along success through the generations.

The study found that "black boys are much less likely to realize the American dream — economically speaking — as they move into adulthood, compared to white boys; by contrast, black girls are much more likely to do well economically as young adults, compared to white girls."

The media concluded from the data that household structure doesn't have a role in outcomes, but Institute for Family Studies chief Brad Wilcox makes several important observations about the role of family structure in this problem, pointing out the importance of involved fathers and stable marriages in helping black men move up the economic ladder.

1. Black boys prosper in neighborhoods with more black fathers.

The new study suggests that neighborhood effects are powerful when it comes to predicting the gap in economic mobility between black and white boys in terms of their individual income as adults. Specifically, there is a “strong positive association between black father presence [in the neighborhood] and black males’ income.” What’s more: black boys’ employment rates are higher and their school suspension rates are lower in “areas with higher black father presence.” They also found that community marriage rates are some of the strongest predictors of smaller black-white gaps in economic mobility for boys. ...

2. You cannot control for household income and say family structure doesn’t matter.

So, what led scholars and journalists like Noah Smith to conclude that this new research indicates that family structure per se does not have much to do with the racial mobility gap for black boys’ individual income as adults? Well, probably the study itself. After controlling for boys’ household income growing up, Chetty et al. themselves concludethat “parental marital status has little impact on intergenerational gaps.” For instance, they found a large racial gap in mobility persists even between black and white boys who grew up in two-parent homes at the same income level.

The problem with this strategy, however, is that there are large gaps in black and white boys’ average household income growing up, and these gaps partly follow from racial differences in family structure. As Chetty et al. note in the study, they found “two incomes for most white children but only one for most black children.” So, by controlling for household income growing up, their reported findings minimized the effect of family structure. ...

3. Marriage matters big time for black boys’ household income as adults.

This racial difference in the odds that blacks and whites marry as thirty-somethings has large implications for the racial divide in household income as adults—including the racial divide in household income between black and white boys as adults. Even Chetty et al. acknowledge that “differences in marriage rates do play an important role in driving the gaps in household income documented above.” But they do not specifically report any of those effects—including for the racial gap in household income between black and white boys as adults.

So, this study does not allow us to know precisely how racial differences in marriage influence the gap in household income between black and white boys as they move into adulthood. But it’s safe to say, given the racial divide in marriage, that family structure has a lot to do with the racial gap in household economic mobility between black and white men.

In sum, when it comes to assessing the impact of family structure on the racial gap in economic mobility between black and white boys, this new study suggests that (1) family structure at the neighborhood level influences economic mobility for black boys, (2) family structure at the household level influences economic mobility for black boys (if you don’t control for their family income growing up), and (3) family structure in adulthood influences black boys’ household income as adults. So, sorry Noah Smith, the new Chetty et al. study actually offers further evidence that family structure seems to play an “important role” in the racial gap in economic mobility in America— including the gap between white and black boys as they move into adulthood.