It has often been argued that African American neighborhoods have schools where low funding and low teacher expectations undermine effective learning, resulting in an ongoing cycle of poverty. This narrative can no longer be defended; funding for urban schools has risen and teachers have increasingly provided encouragement to their impoverished students. What will actually bring about educational improvements is an increase in the income diversity of high-poverty black neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, many liberals continue to focus on segregated housing as a principal cause of the continuing achievement gap. After referencing a long history of government policies that perpetuated racial housing segregation, Economic Policy Institute researcher Richard Rothstein argues:
When low-income minority children can attend truly integrated schools, their achievement rises, not because black children need to sit next to white children to succeed, but because integrated schools are not overwhelmed with children’s social and economic problems and can instead focus on instruction.
The failings of these schools is no longer the result of underfunding or teachers with the wrong attitude. On the contrary, schools in (poor) black neighborhoods are overwhelmed by family and neighborhood problems. But Rothstein has no discussion of these family problems: children growing up without their biological fathers and the serial relationships that result from a majority of black women with multiple children having them with different fathers. Liberals condemn any discussion of the breakdown of the family, fearing it would only reinforce the conservative tendency of “victim blaming.”
So liberals focus on the economic consequences of poverty, instead. Rothstein claims that the “absence of supermarkets in segregated neighborhoods contributes to poor diets, reduced cognitive ability in children, higher health care costs, and shorter lifespans.” What he leaves unstated is that poor diets have to do with more than the availability of supermarkets. The Department of Agriculture found that almost 10 percent of household food-stamp expenditures were on sweetened beverages and another 10 percent on desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar. A number of states and cities have advocated for prohibiting the purchase of sweetened beverages and junk food with food stamps. The New York Times reported on a study that found banning sugary drinks “would be expected to significantly reduce obesity prevalence and Type 2 diabetes incidence, particularly among ages 18 to 65 and some racial and ethnic minorities.
But liberals have been silent on food-stamp restrictions. During her tenure as First Lady, Michelle Obama focused exclusively on the ineffective strategy of incentivizing fruit and vegetable purchases. While Mrs. Obama’s focused on the wrong things, heavy lobbying by beverage companies has been successful in convincing the Department of Agriculture to block proposed purchase restrictions.
Unfortunately, the impoverished often make other unwise expenditures. In Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of the Bling and the Home of the Shameless, journalist Cora Daniels identifies frivolous spending habits of many poor African Americans. And economic studies have found that poor black people spend “up to 30 percent more than whites of comparable income on visible goods like clothing, cars and jewelry.” Daniels believes that these expenditures reflect a tendency towards short-term thinking. Academic and social commentator Cornel West associates such wasteful behavior with “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”
Pointing to a culture of despair is a way to keep the argument alive that extreme victimization is the real problem. Indeed, until recently this has been the standard explanation given by liberal sociologists for the high birth rate amongst African American teens, as opposed to their victimization by black men. But the “despair” explanation lost all credibility after the 2008 Great Recession. One would have expected the recession to increase the level of despair and hence, teen pregnancy. Instead, the black teen pregnancy rate has decreased dramatically since 2008.
Similarly, a culture of despair has little to do with bad spending decisions. Studies demonstrate that visible consumption reflects competition for status. Poor whites are much less concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods than poor blacks. In most large cities, more than 25 percent of poor blacks but less than 10 percent of poor whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods. As a result, poor whites are likely to be surrounded by many of the same race who are not as poor, meaning they cannot afford to use visible consumption to compete for status. In other words, they can’t try to keep up with the Joneses. However, a black person of the same income is more likely to be surrounded by others of the same race and similar income levels, making such competition feasible.
Whatever the motivation to spend more on visible consumption, it leaves poor black parents with less money to spend on their children. In particular, it is educational expenditures that are adversely affected. After controlling for income, black parents spend half as much as comparable white parents on education.
Why is black poverty much more concentrated than white poverty? Many liberals point to discriminatory housing policies that limit the ability of black families to move to middle-class, predominately white communities. Consequently, they propose that governments demand these communities build more affordable housing. While these policies are well-meaning, they will not reduce the high concentration of poor African Americans in high-poverty neighborhoods and, indeed, may even worsen the problem. Given pushback, including from liberal housing advocates, no more than a symbolic share of affordable housing in middle-class neighborhoods will go to the poor. And if most of the increases go to middle-class black families, it would further worsen the poverty concentration in high-poverty black neighborhoods.
The real issue is why middle-class black families are unwilling to live in neighborhoods with poor black families. I’ve previously tried to demonstrate that high violent crime rates in black neighborhoods — even those with a small share of poor people — play a central role in middle-class decision-making about where to live. That is, for instance, why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ black-nationalist parents reluctantly moved their family out of central Baltimore to the suburbs. If black neighborhoods become economically more diverse, schools will improve, negating the need to move to other neighborhoods.
Besides developing housing policies to enable a small group of black — and likely middle-class — families to escape high-poverty neighborhoods, the government should focus on curbing violent crime so that poor black neighborhoods can become attractive to middle-class families.
Robert Cherry is professor of economics at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.