Tag Archives: black women

The failure of the success sequence

This essay was originally published as part of a forum on the success sequence sponsored by the Cato Institute, featuring Michael Tanner, Isabel Sawhill, and Brad Wilcox.

The success sequence is often (mistakenly) attributed to the 2009 book Creating an Opportunity Society by the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill. “First comes education,” they wrote. “Then comes a stable job that pays a decent wage, made decent by the addition of wage supplements and work supports if necessary. Finally comes marriage, followed by children.” They called for “marketing campaigns and educational programs to change social norms: to bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.”

The only issue here is marriage, as the rest is obvious to everyone. And in that regard this model of social change is wholly unproven and without precedent. Seat belt laws and anti-smoking campaigns, always cited by success sequence advocates, are not comparable. Those are daily habits easily addressed by legal regulations and tax policy (seat belts are required by law; with taxes, the price of cigarettes has more than tripled since 1980). The decline in marriage is a massive global trend driven by economic development and cultural adaptation. And the decline in teen pregnancy, to which success sequencers also point as a precedent for public information campaigns, flows with rather than against that underlying trend. As I detail in my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, the drop in teen birth was part of the general increase in the age at which women have children, driven by the expansion of their educational and professional opportunities.

That idea of using public information campaigns to preach “marriage culture” echoed the futile proclamations of a previous generation. In a Hoover Institution symposium in 1996, former vice president Dan Quayle wrote that, “when it comes to strengthening families … we also desperately need help from nongovernment institutions like the media and the entertainment community.” Taking up the call with even more zeal, in 2001 Heritage Foundation fellow Patrick Fagan declared it was time to add three W’s to the common three R’s of schooling. “We need to stress something just as fundamental [as reading, writing, and arithmetic],” he wrote. “Call it the three W’s: work, wedlock and worship. … Put all three in the lives of parents and children, and they thrive.”* Five years later, another Heritage fellow said of the three W’s, “According to the social science data, if these three fundamentals are in place, government social policy is virtually unnecessary.” In 2012, the National Marriage Project, under director W. Bradford Wilcox, was again calling for “community-based and focused public service announcements” and a Hollywood “conversation” to promote marriage.

Meanwhile, slightly more liberal think tank denizens had discretely replaced “worship” with education, but they stuck to the basic idea that the problem with poor people is that they’re doing life wrong—and the “three somethings” formula. In a 2006 report for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Marline Pearson wrote that it was time to “teach teens the rules of the success sequence,” which they defined as, “Finish high school, or better still, get a college degree; wait until your twenties to marry; and have children after you marry.” (Three things is a favorite formula of Chinese social engineers we well, as with Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Three Supremes”—but China combines such slogans with centralized education and state repression to increase their salience.)

Today, more than two decades after Quayle’s plea, 17 years after the three W’s, 12 years after the first “success sequence” proclamation, and one president after the National Marriage Project pitched its “President’s Marriage Agenda,” movement leaders are still calling for “Public and private social marketing campaigns on behalf of marriage and the ‘success sequence’,” to quote Wilcox and Wendy Wang’s latest report. Neither the policy nor the campaign to promote the policy have changed appreciably over the years, although the definition of the success sequence has varied from author to author. And in all this time, I could not find one academic study, outside of those published by think tanks, that seriously evaluates the claims of the success sequence.

What Could Go Wrong?

Today’s success sequence movement is puzzling in part because it fails to recognize—or admit—the extent to which its adherents already won. After the landmark 1996 welfare reform act, the federal government pumped more than $1 billion into national marriage promotion programs (the Healthy Marriage and the Responsible Fatherhood initiatives). This was cause for great celebration in the movement, as it should have been. In 2004, a Heritage Foundation report gushed, “The President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is a future-oriented, preventive policy. It will foster better life-planning skills—encouraging couples to develop loving, committed marriages before bringing children into the world.”

It didn’t. The previous decade’s marriage promotion programs sent the same message the “success sequence” promoters do today. But where is the recognition that they failed? Rigorous evaluations of the marriage promotion efforts showed unequivocally that they produced no increase in marriage, not even among the people coerced into sitting for hours in relationship skills courses required to qualify for welfare benefits. As most readers probably know, in the years after welfare reform, marriage rates have continued to fall, and they have fallen fastest for those with less than a college education, the very population the programs were supposed to help. Even though pro-marriage billboards dotted the highways and FedEx delivered thousands of new-daddy care packages to hospitals. In fact, the only people more likely to marry after all these years of conservative activism are gays and lesbians. (This history is also reviewed in my book.)

Does this mean it’s bad advice to get an education, get a job, and find a permanent partner before having children? Of course not. But the success sequence is bad public policy, which is not the same thing at all. For public policy the question is, what will we accomplish with this money, compared with other things we could spend it on (or nothing at all)? Will the proposed campaigns have any positive effect on family outcomes? And if so, would they be better than some other way of spending money, like giving it to poor people, which is what most rich countries do, along with jobs, paid family leave, health care, and preschool education? Specifically, the rationale for spending money on these campaigns assumes that there are people who are on the fence about the success sequence, whose minds might be changed by the campaign, and that those altered decisions would lead to better outcomes in the future for those specific people. There is simply no evidence to support anything like that chain of events. Despite the ad nauseam repetition of the obvious fact that educated, employed, and (much less importantly) married people are less likely to be poor, there is no evidence at all that convincing people who are not one of those things of their importance will cause a reduction in poverty rates.

Given the well-documented desire of most young adults to finish high school, get a job, and get married—if the opportunity to follow that course presents itself—there is no reason to think the people reached by the proposed campaigns would not either already plan to follow the sequence or rightly suspect that it is not feasible for them. The decision to delay childbearing in hopes of marrying first rests on assumptions about the future—education, economics, relationships, health, stability—that the target population simply cannot makeabout their own destinies in today’s economic and social context. Improve the basic equation, the material expectations of young adults, and you won’t need a campaign to change behavior.

When women have more to lose, they delay parenthood. The college students in my classes, overwhelmingly women (I teach sociology of the family), almost all want to get married and then have children after they finish college. They understand that their marriage prospects will improve after college, and they don’t want children to interfere with their education or career launch. So, why shouldn’t we tell all women, especially those with poorer education and career prospects, to follow this course as well? Success sequencers believe it’s hypocritical to hoard this advice and only dispense it to the children of privilege. But you can’t wish away education, career, and marriage uncertainty or impose order on instability by force of will. If we’re not prepared to guarantee all women the same opportunities as those in my classes have, it’s not reasonable to demand the same attachment to the success sequence that those opportunities make feasible. In the absence of that guarantee, you’re simply asking, or requiring, poor people to delay (until “they’re ready,” in Sawhill’s terms, meaning not poor) or forego having children, one of the great joys of life, and something we should consider a human right.

In addition, what signals will a federal “success sequence” program send? What message will these campaigns send to people who are currently materially underserved by the welfare state, and people who don’t have the option to pursue the sequence because stable partners, education, or jobs aren’t available to them? What message will it send to the majority of Americans who are in a position to look down upon, and act against, those who become, in Sawhill’s chilling phrase, “norm breakers”?

And here race becomes especially salient. Black women have low marriage rates and black single mothers have high poverty rates. They face marriage markets with drastic shortages of eligible men, as Michael Tanner noted in the essay that opened this discussion. Not coincidentally, the history of welfare politics in the United States is intricately bound up with the history of racism against black women, who have been labeled pathological and congenitally dependent. The idea that delaying parenthood until marriage is a choice one makes is highly salient and prized by the white middle class, and the fact that black women often don’t have that choice makes them the objects of scorn for their perceived lax morals. The framing of the success sequence plays into this dynamic. For example, Ron Haskins has argued that welfare reform was needed to “[change] the values and the approach to life of people on welfare that they have to do their part.” The image of the poor welfare “taker” has a race and a gender in America.

In their book, Haskins and Sawhill proudly acknowledge that their cause was out of step with contemporary society. “To those who argue that this goal is old-fashioned or inconsistent with modern culture,” they wrote, “we argue that modern culture is inconsistent with the needs of children.” That may by a reasonable ideological position, but it’s no way to make public policy. The success sequence is a political meme repeated in highly similar form over more than a generation of public policy debates, without yet having any discernible impact for the better. The third “step” or “norm” in particular—marriage—has already been promoted with massive federal subsidies for almost two decades. The first two, education and jobs, are terrific ideas, obvious for good reasons, and not in need of much normative boosting, and we should turn our attention to improving the opportunity for more people to attain them.

* Thanks to Shawn Fremstad for this nugget.


Filed under Politics

Who are you gonna marry? That one big assumption marriage promotion gets totally wrong

First preamble, then new analysis.

One critique of the marriage promotion movement is that it ignores the problem of available spouses, especially for Black women. Joanna Pepin and I addressed this with an analysis of marriage markets in this paper. White women ages 20-45, who are more than twice as likely to marry as Black women, live in metro areas with an average of 118 unmarried White men per 100 unmarried White women. Black women, on the other hand, face markets with only 78 single men per 100 single women. This is one reason for the difference in marriage rates; given very low rates of intermarriage, especially for Black women, some women essentially can’t marry.

But surely some people are still passing up potential marriages, or so the marriage promoters would have us believe, and in so doing they undermine their own futures and those of their children. Even if you can get past the sex ratio problem, you still have the issue of the benefits of marriage. Of course married people, and their kids, are better off on average. (There are great methodological lessons to be learned from their big lie use of this fact.) But who gets those benefits? The intellectual water-carriers of the movement, principally Brad Wilcox and his co-authors, always describe the benefits of increasing marriage as if the next marriage to occur will provide the same benefits as the average existing marriage. I wrote about how this wrong in Enduring Bonds:

The idea that the “benefits” of marriage—that is, the observed association between marriage and nonpoverty—would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their current partners is bonkers. The notion of a “marriage market” is not perfect, but there is something like a marriage queue that arranges people from most likely to least likely to marry. When you say, “Married people are better off than single people,” a big part of what you’re observing is that, on average, the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front of that queue, more likely to marry and then to display what look like the benefits of marriage. Those at the back of the queue, who are more (if not totally) “unmarriageable,” clearly aren’t going to have those highly beneficial marriages if they “simply” marry the closest person.

In fact, I assume this problem has gotten worse as marriage has become more selective, as “it’s increasingly the most well off who are getting and staying married,” and those who aren’t marrying “may not have the assets that lead to marriage benefits: skills, wealth, social networks, and so on.”

Note on race

People who promote marriage don’t like to talk about race, but if it weren’t for race — and racism — they would never have gotten as far as they have in selling their agenda. They use supposedly race-neutral language to talk about fatherhood and a “culture of marriage” and “sustainably escaping poverty,” in ways that are all highly relevant to Black families and racial disparities. If you think the problem of marriage is that poor people are not marrying enough, you should not avoid the fact that you’re talking about race. Black women, especially mothers, are much less likely to be married than most other groups of women, even at the same level of income or education (last I checked Black college graduates were 5-times more likely than White college graduates to be single when they had a baby). So, don’t avoid that this is about race, own it  — the demographic facts and political machinations in this area are all highly interwoven with race. I do this analysis, like the paper Joanna and I did, separately for Black and White women, because that’s the main faultline in this area. The code I share below is adaptable to use with other groups as well.

Data illustration

In this data exercise I try to operationalize something like that marriage market queue, to show that women who are least likely to marry are also least likely to enter an economically beneficial marriage if they did marry. See how you like this, and let me know what you think. Or take the data and code and come up with a different way of doing it.

The logic is to take a sample of never-married women, and women who just got married in the last year, and predict membership in the latter group. This generates a predicted probability of marrying for each woman, and it means I can look at the never-married women and see which among them are more or less likely to marry in a given year. For example, based on the models below, I would estimate that a Black woman under age 25, with less than a BA degree, who had a job with less-than-average earnings, has a 0.4% probability of marrying in one year. On the other hand, if she were age 25+, with a BA degree and above-average earnings, her chance of marrying rises to 3.5% per year. (Round numbers.)*

Next, I look at the husbands of women who married men in the year prior to the survey, and I assign them economic scores on an 11-point scale (this is totally arbitrary): up to four points for education, up to four points for earnings, and up to three points for employment level (weeks and hours worked in the previous year). So, a woman whose husband has a high school education, earned $30,000 last year, and worked full-time, year-round, would have 7 points.

Finally, I show the relationship between the odds of marriage for women who didn’t get married and the economic score of the men they would have married if they did.

There are two descriptive conclusions, which I assumed I would find: (1) women who get married marry men with better economic scores than the women who don’t get married would if they did get married; and, (2) the greater the odds of marriage, the better the economic prospects of the man they would marry. The substantive conclusion from this is that marriage promotion, if it could get more people to marry, would pull from the women on the lower rungs of marriage probability, so those new marriages would be less economically beneficial than the average marriage, and the use of married people’s characteristics to project the benefits of marriage for unmarried people is wrong. Like I said, I already believed this, so this is a way of confirming it or showing the extent to which it fits my expectations. (Or, I could be wrong.)

Here are the details.

I use the 2012-2016 five-year American Community Survey data from IPUMS.org (for larger sample). The sample is women ages 18-44, not living in group quarters, single-race Black or White, non-Hispanic, and US-born. I further limited the sample to those who never married, and those who are married for the first time in the previous 12 months. That condition — just married — is the dependent variable in a model predicting odds of first marriage. (Women with female spouses or partners are excluded, too.) The variables used to predict marriage are age (and its square), education, earnings in the previous year (logged), and having no earnings in the previous year (these women are most likely to marry), disability status, metro area residence, and state dummy variables. It’s a simple model, not trying for statistical efficiency but rather the best prediction of marriage odds. Then I use the same set of variables, limiting the analysis to just-married women, to predict their husbands’ economic scores. The regression models are in a table at the end.**

Figure 1 shows how the prediction models assign marriage probabilities. White women have much higher odds of marrying, and those who married have higher odds than those who didn’t, which is reassuring. In particular, a large proportion of never-married Black women are predicted to have very low odds of marrying (click to enlarge).


Figure 2 shows the distribution of husbands’ economic scores for Black and White women who married and those who didn’t. The women who didn’t marry have lower predicted husband scores, with the model giving them husbands with a mode of about 7.0 for Whites and 6.5 for Blacks (click to enlarge).


Finally, the last figure includes only never-married women. It shows the relationship between predicted marriage probability and predicted husband score, using median splines. So, for example, the average unmarried Black woman has a marriage probability of about 1.7%. Figure 3 shows that her predicted husband would have a median score of about 6.4. So he could be a full-time, full-year worker with a high school education, earning $19,000 per year, which would not be enough to lift her and one child out of poverty. The average never-married White woman has a predicted marriage probability of 5.1%, and her imaginary husband has a score of about 7.4 (e.g., a similar husband, but earning $25,000 per year).


Figure 3 implies  what I thought was obvious at the beginning: the further down the marriage market queue you go, the worse the economic prospects of the men they would marry, if there were men for them to marry (whom they wanted to marry, and who wanted to marry them).

I will now be holding my breath while marriage promotion activists develop a more sensible set of assumptions for their assessment of the benefits of the promoted marriages they assure us they will be able to conjure if only we give them a few billion more dollars.

I’m posting the data and code used on the Open Science Framework, here. Please feel free to work with it and let me know what you come up with!

* This looks pretty similar to what Dohoon Lee did in this paper, including his figures, and since I was on his dissertation committee, and read his paper, which has similar figures, I credit him with this idea — I should have remembered earlier.

** Here are the regression models used to (1) predict marriage, and then (2) predict husband’s economic scores.

marriage models.xlsx



Filed under Me @ work

Unequal marriage markets for Black and White women

Joanna Pepin and I have posted a new paper titled, “Unequal marriage markets: Sex ratios and first marriage among Black and White women.” In the paper, we find that the marriage markets of Black and White women are very different, with Black women living in metropolitan areas that have many fewer single men than White women do. And, in a regression model with other important predictors of marriage, this unmarried sex ratio is strongly associated with the odds of marrying.

We count this as evidence on the side of “structure” over “culture” in the debates over the decline in marriage. Here’s the main result, showing Black and White women in 172 metro areas (scaled for size), and the difference in sex ratios (the horizontal spread), the difference in marriage rates (the vertical spread), and the statistical effect of sex ratios on marriage (the slopes).


In a nutshell: As you move from left to right, there are more men, and higher odds of marriage. And almost all the White women are up and to the right compared with the Black women. One implication is that this could be one reason why marriage promotion programs in the welfare system aren’t working.

There are a couple of noteworthy innovations here. First, we used the American Community Survey marital events data, which is marriage happening (did you get married in the last year?) rather than just existing (are you married?). This is a better way to assess what might influence marriage. Second, young people, especially single young people who might be getting married, move around a lot. So what is their marriage market? It’s impossible to say exactly, but we define it as the metro area where they lived one year earlier, rather than just where they live now. (This is especially important because the people who move may move because they just got married.)

The paper is on SocArXiv, where if you follow the links you get to the project page, where we put most of the data and code. The paper is under review now, and we’d love to know if you find any mistakes or have any suggestions.

(This began with a blog post four years ago in which I critiqued a NYT Magazine piece by Anne Lowrie about using marriage to cure poverty. Then we presented a first pass at the Population Association in 2014, and I put some of the descriptive statistics in my textbook, and we made a short video out of it, in which I said, “So, larger social forces — the economy, job discrimination, incarceration policies, and health disparities — all impinge on the ability of individuals to shape their own family lives.” Along the way, I presented some about it here and there, while thinking of new ways to measure marriage inequalities.)


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

African American marital status by age, Du Bois replication edition

At the 1900 Paris Exposition, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois presented some the work of his students. In The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, Aldon Morris writes:

Du Bois’s meticulousness as a teacher is apparent in the charts and graphs that he prepared with his students. For example, as part of his gold medal-winning exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition, Du Bois and his students produced detailed hand-drawn artistically colored graphs and charts that depicted the journey of black Georgians from slavery to freedom.

Some of collection is shown in this post at the Public Domain Review (shared by Tressie McMillan Cottom yesterday); the full collection is online at the Library of Congress (LOC).

The one that caught my eye was this, showing marital status (“conjugal condition”) by age and sex for the Black population. I can’t find the source details in the LOC record, so I don’t know if it’s Georgia or national, but I presume it’s from tabulations of 1890 decennial census or earlier:


It’s artistic and meticulous and clearly informative, beautiful. So I tried to make a 2015 update to complement it. I used data from the 2015 American Community Survey via IPUMS.org, and did it a little differently.* Most importantly, I added two more conjugal conditions, cohabiting and separated/divorced. Second, I used five-year age groupings all the way up, instead of ten. Third, I detailed the age groups up to age 85. Here’s what I got:

du bois marstat replication.xlsx

Some very big differences: Much smaller proportions of African Americans married now. Also, much later marriage. In the 1900 figure more than 30% of men and 60% of women have been married by age 25; those numbers are 5-6% now. I don’t know how they counted separated/divorced people in 1900, but those numbers are high now at 31% for women and 24% for men at age 60-64. Widowhood is later now, as 42% of women were widowed before age 65 in 1900, compared with only 13% now (of course, that’s off a lower marriage rate, and remarried people are just counted as married). And of course cohabitation, which the chart doesn’t show for 1900. Note I included people in same-sex as well as different-sex couples.

So, thanks for indulging me. I hope you don’t think it’s frivolous. I just love staring at the old charts, and going through the (very different) steps of replicating it was really satisfying. (I also just love that in another 100 years someone might look back on this and say, “Wait, which one was Earth again?”)

Note: If you want to compare them side-by-side, here’s a go at that. The age ranges don’t line up perfectly but you can get the idea (click to enlarge):

* SAS code, ACS data, images, and the spreadsheet used for this post are shared as an Open Science Framework project, here.


Filed under Me @ work

Explain to me again how marriage is the problem here

This is one of those things you share with all your friends on social media.


Black married parents are 2.4-times more likely to be in poverty, are 2.1-times more likely to be unemployed, and have one-ninth the median net worth compared with White married parents. So explain to me again how marriage is the problem here.


The other day I picked on someone’s fact meme, and wondered what makes these things work, without offering a constructive alternative. I can’t answer the question I asked in that post (how old are the fathers of teen mothers’ children?), but I can answer some other questions about families and Black-White inequality. So that’s what I did.

Feel free to take these facts (or any others) and make something better.


Here are my sources:

Poverty: 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. The poverty rates were 5% for White married parents and 11.9% for Black married parents. The poverty variable goes from 0 to 501, with 0-99 being below the poverty line, so you specify the recode like this: poverty(r:0-99 “poor”; 100-501 “not poor”). Here’s how you fill out the boxes in the online analysis tool:


Unemployment: Again, 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. For this one you limit it to people in the labor force (empstat(1-2)) to get the unemployment rate. I did it for men and women combined, getting unemployment rates of 3.1% for White married parents and 6.6% for Black married parents. The numbers are higher for women (3.7% versus 7.3%) but the Black/White ratio is a little worse for men (2.6% versus 5.8%). Here’s how:


Median net worth: I used the Survey of Consumer Finances from 2013, available here. These are also non-Hispanic Black and White parents living with children. The median net worths were $150,500 for Whites and $16,000 for Blacks (Hispanics, incidentally, have $18,750, and the rest are just coded “other”). This data set combines married people with those who are “living with partner,” so this comparison includes cohabitors. (I don’t know how that affects the results, but I’m sure there’s still lots of inequality.) I put my STATA code in an Open Science Framework project here, so feel free to play with it yourself.


Filed under In the news

Black women really do have high college enrollment rates (at age 25+)

The other day I reported on the completely incorrect meme that Black women are the “most educated group” in the U.S. That was a simple misreading of a percentage term on an old table of degree attainment, which was picked up by dozens of news-repeater websites. Too many writers/copiers and editors/selectors don’t know how to read or interpret social statistics, so this kind of thing happens when the story is just too good to pass up.

I ignored another part of those stories, which was the claim that Black women have the highest college enrollment rates, too. This is more complicated, and the repeated misrepresentation is more understandable.

Asha Parker in Salon wrote:

By both race and gender there is a higher percentage of black women (9.7 percent) enrolled in college than any other group including Asian women (8.7 percent), white women (7.1 percent) and white men (6.1 percent), according to the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau.

You know the rewrite journalists are playing telephone when they all cite the same out-of-date statistics. (That Census report comes out every year — here’s the 2014 version; pro-tip: with government reports, try changing the year in the URL as a shortcut to the latest version.)

But is that true? Sort of. Here I have to blame the Census Bureau a little, because on that table they do show those numbers, but what they don’t say is that 9.7% (in the case of Black women) is the percentage of all Black “women” age 3 or older who are attending college. On that same table you can see that about 2% of Black “women” are attending nursery school or kindergarten; more relevant, probably, is the attendance rate for those ages 3-4, which is 59%.

So it’s sort of true. Particularly odd on that table is the low overall college attendance rate of Asian women, who are far and away the most likely to go to college at the “traditional” college ages of 18-24. That’s because they are disproportionately over age 25 (partly because many have immigrated as adults). But, if you just limit the population to those ages 18-54, Black women still have the highest enrollment rates: 15.5%, compared with 14.6% for Asians, 12.6% for Hispanics, and 12.4% for Whites. Asians are just the most likely to be over 25 and not attending college, most of them having graduated college already.

This does not diminish the importance of high enrollment rates for Black women, which are real — after age 25; the pattern is interesting and important. Here it is:


Under age 25, Black women are the least likely to be in college, over 25 they’re the most likely. This really may say something about Black women’s resilience and determination, but it is not a feel-good story of barriers overcome and opportunity achieved. And, despite her presence in the videos and stories illustrating this meme, it is not the story of Michelle Obama, who had a law degree from Harvard at age 24.

This is part of a pattern in which family events are arrayed differently across the life course for different race/ethnic groups, and the White standard is often mistaken as universal. I have noted this before with regard to marriage (with more Black women marrying at later ages) and infant mortality (which Black women facing the lowest risk of infant death when they have children young). It’s worth looking at more systematically.

ADDENDUM 6/29/2016: Cumulative projected years of higher education

If you take the proportion of women enrolled in each age group, multiply it by the years if the age group (so, for example, 18-19 is two years), and sum up those products, you can get a projected total years in college (including graduate school) for each group of women. It looks like this:


Note this makes the unreasonable assumption that everyone who says they are enrolled in college in an October survey attends college for a full year. So, for example, Asian women are projected to spend 6.2 years in college on average between ages 18 and 54. What’s interesting here is that Black women are projected to spend more years in higher education than White women (5.5 versus 4.9). But we know they are much less likely than White women to end up with a bachelor’s degree (currently 23% versus 33%). This has to be some combination of Black women not spending full years in college, not going to school full time, or not completing bachelor’s degrees after however many years in school. Attendance may be an indicator of resilience or determination, but it’s not as good an indicator of success.


Filed under In the news

No Black women are not the “most educated” group in the US

I don’t know where this started, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping. The following headlines are all completely factually wrong, and the organizations that published them should correct them right away:

The Root: Black Women Now the Most Educated Group in US

Upworthy: Black women are now America’s most educated group

SalonBlack women are now the most educated group in the United States

GoodBlack Women Are Now The Most Educated Group In The U.S.

And then the video, by ATTN:, on Facebook, with 6 million views so far. I won’t embed the video here, but it includes these images, with completely wrong facts:



What’s true is that Black women, in the 2009-2010 academic year, received a higher percentage of degrees within their race/ethnic group than did women in any other major group. So, for example, of all the MA degrees awarded to Black students, Black women got 71% of them. In comparison, White women only got 62% of all White MA degrees. Here is the chart, from the data that everyone linked to (which is not new data, by the way, and has nothing to do with 2015):


For Black women to be the “most educated group,” they would have to have more degrees per person than other groups. In fact, although a greater percentage of Black women have degrees than Black men do, they have less education on average than White women, White men, Asian/Pacific Islander women, and Asian/Pacific Islander men.

Here are the percentages of each group that holds a BA degree or higher (ages 25-54), according to the 2010-2014 American Community Survey, with Black women highlighted:


23% of Black women ages 25-54 have BA degrees or more education, compared with 38% of White women. This does not mean Black women are worse (or that White women are better). It’s just the actual fact. Here are the percentages for PhD degrees:


Just over half of 1% of Black women have PhDs, compared with just over 1% of White women – and almost 3% of Asian/PI women. White women are almost twice as likely to have a PhD and Black women, Asian/PI women are more than 5-times as likely.

Racism is racism, inequality is inequality, facts are facts. Saying this doesn’t make me racist or not racist, and it doesn’t change the situation of Black women, who are absolutely undervalued in America in all kinds of ways (and one of those ways is that they don’t have the same educational opportunities as other groups). There are some facts in these stories that are true, too. And of course, why Black women (and women in general) are getting more degrees than men are is an important question. But please don’t think it’s my responsibility to research and present all this information correctly before it’s appropriate for me to point out the obvious inaccuracy here. You don’t need this meme to do the good you’re trying to do by sharing these stories.

Our current information economy rewards speed and clickability. Journalists who know what they’re doing are more expensive and slower. Making good graphics and funny GIFs is a good skill, but it’s a different skill than interpreting and presenting information. We can each help a little by pausing before we share. And those of us with the skills and training to track these things down should all pitch in and do some debunking once in a while. For academics, there is little extra reward in this (as evidenced by my most recent, sup-par departmental “merit” review), beyond the rewards we already get for our cushy jobs, but it should be part of our mission.


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