From disproportionate incarceration to the stunning likelihood of downward social mobility, the news about black men in America is usually a bleak story of racism, inequality, and injustice. The statistics are undeniable, and the need for change is urgent. In a recent study, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) attempt a closer look at the flip side of the coin, asking what institutional and cultural forces do lead to economic success for black men in America today. The report highlights the connection between the 57 percent of black men who make it into the middle class or higher as adults and certain societal institutions: higher education, full-time work, the black church, the military, and marriage.

The report is part of the Home Economics Study, a joint effort from AEI and IFS. Researchers primarily use data from the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, in which a nationally representative sample is periodically interviewed about life events. The 1979 cohort began with 12,686 youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, and in 2014 (the year of the most recent data used) retained 7,071 of the original cohort, now between the ages of forty-nine and fifty-eight. The 933 black men who remained in the 2014 wave make up the primary data used, with findings weighted to reflect the overall population of the original representative sample. Researchers supplement findings with data from the Census and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The correlation of success with higher education and full-time work is expected, as the study acknowledges, but the correlation with the military, church, and marriage may be less obvious. Researchers found that black men who serve in the military are 9 percentage points more likely to be in the middle class by their fifties than those who did not; those who frequently attended church services when they were young are 10 percentage points more likely. The difference between those who are married and those who are not is a wide 50 percentage points: 70 percent of married black men are in the middle class in their fifties, compared to 20 percent of those who never married and 44 percent of those who are divorced. Contact with the criminal justice system has the opposite effect: 44 percent of black men who were charged with a crime when they were young were in poverty in their fifties, and only 28 percent made it to the middle class. As researchers point out, the proven higher likelihood of arrest and incarceration for black men than for white men for similar offenses means that this finding is essentially a measure of one effect of racism.

The study also explores how these institutions interact, finding that some of the results mediate each other or are associated with explanatory factors, like health in mid-life or knowledge, as measured by scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. For example, the long-lasting costs of contact with the criminal justice system include a lower likelihood of working full-time and marrying, while black men who serve in the military are more likely to do both of those things. In both cases, the effects of work and marriage statistically explained the effects of the other institution. Researchers also mention the way structural racism limits access to factors associated with success, like a more affluent childhood or good health.

The primary limitation of the study is the data used. After decades, attrition in the NSLY means that less than 1,000 black men remained. Those remaining may well be less likely to be poor or have encountered major life difficulties (the sample also did not include those who died). The results also reflect men who were youths in the 1970s; whether these institutions have the same effects and associations with success of black men who are young today or in more recent decades is unclear.

The results of this report highlight the value of institutional or community support, and its potential to help overcome the very real obstacles that exist for black men in America. Though the institutions examined here are no guarantee of success, they are all forms of connection to communities and support networks, while incarceration is the opposite: a form of disconnection that can cut off access to those supports. Whether the institutions themselves are the gateway to success, or whether the men who have access to institutional support are already better situated to succeed, is a topic worth further exploration.

Either way, although almost all the institutions mentioned are found in adulthood, K–12 education has a role to play in increasing black men’s access to them. The study’s results suggest the need for a continued focus on “college and career readiness” to connect more students to higher education and full-time work; a commitment of resources to keep students out of the criminal justice system; and a search for more ways to connect students to those communities and networks that will support them beyond their years in the public school system.

SOURCE: W. Bradford Wilcox, Wendy Wang, and Ronald B. Mincy, “Black Men Making It in America: The Engines of Economic Success for Black Men in America,” American Enterprise Institute (June 2018).

Emily Howell was a research intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and had been pursuing a master’s degree in education policy at The George Washington University. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Yale University, and before returning to school she taught middle school in San Antonio, TX, and Washington, DC, in both charter and traditional public schools. Her research interests include school climate, teacher…

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