Tag Archives: black women

Single Moms Can’t Be Scapegoated for the Murder Rate Anymore

This post originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com

Homicides in D.C. have hit a historic low, while the percentage of single-parent households remains steady.

As the year draws to a close, the Washington Post reports that the District of Columbia is heading for a historic low number of homicides: fewer than 100 for 2012. That’s down from the highs of about 450 per year at the start of the 1990s (while the population is about the same size).

Not mentioned in the story: the breakdown of the family. That’s surprising, because it was a big part of the story 20 years ago, when D.C. was the murder capital of the country during a national crime wave. I think single mothers—especially those who were raising their kids back in the 1990s—deserve an apology from the conventional-wisdom purveyors of that time.

Using the numbers from the Washington Post feature and Census data, I constructed homicide and single mother rates for 1990, 2000, and 2011, for Washington, D.C. Both trends have been pretty linear, so it’s reasonable to illustrate them with just a few points:

cohen_singlemomchart.pngSources: Homicide rates calculated from number of homicides reported by the Washington Postand population totals from the U.S. Census Bureau, along with single-mother rates, for 1990 and2000-2011.

The Post attributes the declining murder rates to rising incomes, improved law enforcement technology and community relations, and better trauma care (although the number of non-fatal assaults has fallen similarly). But if you go back to the Post from the late 1980s and early 1990s, you would have heard a lot about family structure.

A very early story, from 1985, raised the alarm about an apparent growing epidemic of amoral, violent, black young men:

Such incidents have raised new fears here [in D.C.] and across the country about the growing instability of urban black family structure and the creation of an underclass of young men capable of killing for a warmup jacket or a pair of running shoes. Social scientists, law enforcement officials and community leaders share some of the same theories about the reasons for this kind of homicide among poor black youngsters. They point to the intense desire for material things amid deprivation, easy access to handguns, and the inability of parents—often young, unmarried mothers—to control or instill values in their children.

In 1991, when Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan released a study on homicide trends, he declared:

The collapse of the American family in the past few decades is historically unprecedented in the U.S., and possibly in the world. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the black community…. Some argue that the high rate of single parenthood has not adversely affected our children. But, sadly, the research does not bear them out. . . . Study after study has shown that children from single-parent families are five times more likely to be poor and twice as likely to drop out of school. . . . They are also more likely to be involved in criminal activity, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to suffer ill health, and to become trapped in welfare dependency.

Sullivan’s solution was a return to a “culture of character,” which he described as “a culture in which parents invest time and attention in their children, and the children of a neighborhood; a culture in which children growing up without a father are a small minority.”

A 1994 article focusing on the increase in homicide among young people summarized it this way:

At the bottom of all this, people in every section of the juvenile justice system say, is a critical lack of parenting. … Federal officials estimate that 70 percent of children in juvenile court are from single-parent households. In the last 30 years, the proportion of single mothers has grown from one in 20 to one in four.

Family structure and parenting were not the only explanations offered for the epidemic of murder. There was plenty written about crack cocaine and the drug war turf disputes, the availability of guns, and about poverty and failing schools. But that single-parent theme was quite widespread.

I’ve written before about the assumption that the rise in single-parent families was responsible for the violent crime bonanza of the 1980s and 1990s. (Romney and Ryan returned to this theme.)

Looking at it from the perspective of 1990, it was easy to assume a strong causal relationship between the rise in single motherhood and the murder epidemic. By my reading of the research, it is true that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes. But other factors are more important. That must be the case, or we wouldn’t see the overall trends in the United States split this dramatically starting in the 1990s:

cohen_singlemomchart2.pngSources: Crime data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, family structure from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Violent crime has fallen through the floor (or at least back to the rates of the 1970s) relative to the bad old days. And this is true not just for homicide but also for rape and other assaults. At the same time, the decline of marriage has continued apace. Looking at two aggregate trends is never enough to tell a whole story of social change, of course. However, if two trends going together doesn’t prove a causal relationship, the opposite is not quite as true. If two trends do not go together, the theory that one causes the other has a steeper hill to climb. In the case of family breakdown driving crime rates, I don’t think the story will make it anymore.

And I’m open to explanations for why crime has really fallen, even including some minor role for the incarceration craze. But there were a lot of people who were not nearly so circumspect about the soundness of their causal stories when the family-breakdown-crime assumption served their ends. And it would be big of them to own up to it now.


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Demography and destiny for voters

Posted on TheAtlantic.com as Why Demographics Can’t Fully Predict How People Vote

Two-thirds of single women voted for Obama, according to the exit polls taken on the day of the election. On the other hand, the majority—53 percent—of married women went for Romney. With marriage on the decline, figured one pundit,

If [Republicans] are unable to attract the support of more unmarried female voters in future elections, they could face years in the political wilderness.

And Fox News reported:

Marital status was a more significant factor than gender this year. Women, a traditional Democratic voting group, backed Obama by 11 points—about the same as by 13 points in 2008. Even so, married women backed Romney by 7 points (an improvement from McCain’s +3 showing). Men backed Romney (52-45 percent), and married men backed him by an even wider margin (60-38 percent).

But these conclusions are overdrawn, because “unmarried women” are a data category more than a lived social group. Most people who aren’t married will get married. And people who are likely not to get married—such as poor people with fewer marriage prospects—tend to have traditional viewsabout marriage anyway. So what distinguishes unmarried women? Birth control is a common explanation. But almost everyone thinks birth control is okay these days, and although single women might be more worried about access, that’s because they’re less likely to have health insurance. In short, even if some women do have a strong identity as members of the single-women category, most unmarried women are just passing through.

What is grouping good for?

From the large sample interviewed by the major media’s exit polling consortium, we can see that simple demography can make some very strong predictions. At the extreme, with just two data points—race and gender—we can guess how a person voted 96 percent of the time, if she’s a black woman.


Source: From exit poll breakdowns based on polling by Edison Research.

But that doesn’t tell us why people voted the way they did. On average, for example, black women also have lower incomes, are younger, and have completed less education than whites—and they have worse healthcare.


Source: National Health Interview Survey.

So did black women vote for Obama because they are proud of him as a black man and identify with his personal experience, or because his policies are more beneficial for them as workers, concerned family members, or medical patients?

And the closer a group gets to the 50/50 middle of the odds breakdown, the harder it is to guess what’s going on from the demographics. When the plane I was on Tuesday night landed, I turned on my iPhone to see who had won Ohio. Waiting for the page to load, I looked around and saw a guy a few rows back, smiling and giving me a thumbs up. He must have noticed I’m a white man, almost two-thirds of whom went for Romney. But did he think I was Jewish, or gay? Maybe it was my rumpled casual-business wear, shaggy hair, and dead-giveaway academic backpack. Or my facial expression.

In real life, even with people we don’t know personally, the cues we get from interactions and behavior explain more than simple demographics, although they all go into the quick mix of judgments we are forced to form on short notice throughout the day. In statistical terms, the basic demographic variables leave a lot of variance unexplained.

These demographic categories are useful for prediction at the group level, as punditry has proved. Show me a room full of randomly-chosen Mormons and I can guess that 78 percent of them voted for Romney. But give me 30 seconds with one of them personally and I might figure out whether she is the one who didn’t.

This paradox is why the “big data” people were so central to the campaigns. If you can get someone to give you a few key bits of information—even just a zip code—and then track them as they wander around the web after leaving your site, your models can be much more powerful than the demographics alone. It’s the equivalent of sizing up someone by their shoes, haircut, and the flight they’re on, rather than just sex and race.

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Black is not a color

When I saw this magazine cover, I did a double-take:

At a glance I didn’t think that was Black Hair. Seems like a good time to bring up the old schoolyard debate point: Black is not a color.

In many quarters, such as the those administered under the rules of the Chicago Manual of Style, black is a color, which means it’s not capitalized:

8.39 Color. Common designations of ethnic groups by color are usually lowercased unless a particular publisher or author prefers otherwise… (black people; blacks; people of color; white people; whites)

That rule, from the 16th edition, is progress from the 15th, which said “capitalization may be appropriate if the writer strongly prefers it” (8.43, emphasis added). Under that older provision in 1996, the journal Signs required that I add a footnote in my first journal publication, which read, “I … capitalize Black to signify its reference to a people rather than a color or a ‘race.'”*

Most media do not capitalize Black or White. The Associated Press Stylebook reads:

black Acceptable for a person of the black race. African-American is acceptable for an American black person of African descent. (Use Negro only in names of organizations or in quotations.) Do not use colored as a synonym.

So, for example:

Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a crime watch volunteer in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012. The death of the unarmed black teenager and the decision of the local police not to bring charges against the volunteer, George Zimmerman, 28, set off a national outcry…

Sociology journals are inconsistent. For example, the American Sociological Review goes both ways (e.g., this 2010 presidential address used uncapitalized black, while our 2007 article’s capitalization sailed through without objection). On the other hand, some sociology journals follow the more progressive APA Style, in which Black is capitalized (as is White).

In the wider American world – at least as measured by Google Books ngrams – the uncapitalized version is leading by about 3-to-1.

(Black by itself wouldn’t work, so I added “people.” The pattern is the same if you use “community” instead.)

The Census Bureau capitalizes, as in this report on the 2010 Census:

“Black or African American” refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicated their race(s) as “Black, African Am., or Negro” or reported entries such as African American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian.

That usage differs from the Office of Management and Budget directive, from which that language is drawn: “…any of the black racial groups of Africa,” without capitalization. That Census practice of capitalizing seems to have started between 1990 and 1995. (Others, like the Department of Education, have their own rules, which specify that racial designations should be capitalized.)

Finally, African American is not going to get us out of this. It is not appropriate when the subject really is race rather than ethnicity. I feel for this poor research subject in a Census cognitive interview:

She is an immigrant to the US from Africa. However, roughly six generations ago her ancestors were from India. She lived in an Indian community in Africa prior to immigrating to the United States. She answered “no” to … “Black or African American” because she was from an African country, but of Indian origin. She answered “yes” to the Asian question and “yes” to Asian Indian. She also reported ‘some other race’ by saying “African, not African American, African from Africa, Asian African.”

Anyway, Black and White are racial terms. They are a social construction and not a biological classification. We use them socially. Whether or not that’s OK, I think it’s better to capitalize them at least.

*Update: I just noticed this footnote by Catharine MacKinnon, who was also asked by Signs (University of Chicago Press) to justify capitalizing Black for her 1982 articlewhich I assigned in my stratification seminar. She wrote:

I have rendered “marxism” in lower case and “Black” in upper case and have been asked by the publisher to explain these choices. … Black is conventionally (I am told) regarded as a color rather than a racial or national designation, hence is not usually capitalized. I do not regard Black as merely a color of skin pigmentation, but as a heritage, an experience, a cultural and personal identity, the meaning of which becomes specifically stigmatic and/or glorious and/or ordinary under specific social conditions. It is as much socially created as, and at least in the American context no less specifically meaningful or definitive than, any linguistic, tribal, or religious ethnicity, all of which are conventionally recognized by capitalization.

I guess I should have cited her note for my article.

P.S. If your organization or publication has its own way – or I’ve misrepresented a practice you know better than I do – please let us know.


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A little shecovery

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research dates the start of the jobs shecovery to October 2010, but it wasn’t till the last quarter of 2011 that women’s job growth equaled men’s. They have a nice figure in their latest report:

This updates my mancession/hecovery series, which last appeared here.

Using the population survey numbers (not the payroll numbers IWPR uses), I’ve also updated my series on Black-White women’s trends:


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Recent reads: Brazil, China, blogging and the Black middle class

In the last few days I tweeted a handful of really interesting articles that might be of interest to Family Inequality readers:

In the Washington PostPlummeting birthrates in Brazil

The Washington Post reports on Brazil’s fall from more than 6 to less then 2 children per woman in the past 50 years:

It’s a good case study for fertility transitions, featuring a combination of common economic and cultural suspects in accelerated sequence.

In the NY TimesPeggy Orenstein on the ideal of gender-free toys

Rather then seek a gender-free ideal, she argues, consider how children’s environments exacerbate or mitigate the differences between them:

At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.

In SlateMara Hvistendahl on C-sections in China

The tradition of natural childbirth was continued by the training of nurses and midwives during the early years of Chinese socialism. Now, the one-child policy combines with the medicalization of childbirth – and the attendant profit motive – to tip the scales toward C-sections. She writes:

For modern expectant women, by contrast, the combination of the one-child policy and feverish economic development has yielded an environment in which they—and the in-laws and husbands who have so much riding on a single birth—fear any potential misstep.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education: Andrea Doucet on scholar-bloggers

As an established scholar who has taken to blogging, she confronts the difference between slow-and-deep versus fast-and-thin, how it affects her reading as well as her writing, and her self image as a scholar. She is “convinced that blogging can and should be part of scholarly life,” but it comes with risks:

At its best, a blog post can move and inspire in what seems like the blink of an eye. The combination of brevity, focused vision, and engaging language creates a storytelling style that could make a scholar green with envy. But blogs also generally call for a form of reading that verges on consumption.

On CNN.com: Kris Marsh on the Black middle class

Kris – a friend and colleague – argues that the Black middle class is being transformed by the growing presence of single adults without children, the “Love Jones Cohort.” Taking this group seriously undermines the narrative of the “failure” of marriage in Black America.

I propose we embrace the reality of a changing black middle class and start taking a serious look at how the Love Jones Cohort is changing the face of black America, changing how we think about middle class, and changing our understanding of being black in America.

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Employment unequal

The news each month is usually on unemployment rates, weekly filings of new claims, layoffs and new hiring. And the Pew report on widening race/ethnic wealth gaps was eye-opening. But you can take the measure of the recession overall maybe best with the employment rates — how many people have jobs? By that measure, the news is flat-to-down without letup. The Black-White discrepancy in the trends is increasing.

Here is the employment trend for White and Black women, showing that Black women had higher employment rates before the recession, but they’ve fallen more than twice as much as White women’s (a drop of 5.7% versus 2.4% as of June):

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

For men, the gap is bigger and the lines further apart, so I added a ratio line to help show the gap. Black men’s rate has fallen 5.6%, compared with 3.8% for White men:

The Christian Science Monitor has an article reviewing some of the factors that contribute to the unemployment gap for men, including education, incarceration and discrimination. And the Center for American Progress has more detail in this report, which argues that declines in manufacturing and public employment are increasing the Black-White gaps especially in this recession.

What the broader statistics don’t show as well is the tenuousness of the jobs Black workers have compared to Whites generally – working for weaker firms, in more segregated jobs, as a result of a racialized sorting process, which put them at higher risk of job loss in a recession (even without discrimination in firing decisions, which there is, too).


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Birthweight and infant mortality inequality

Birthweight drives the Black-White gap.

Here’s a look at birthweight patterns and their effects on the difference in infant mortality rates between Black and White children.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control, based on 2007 data, shows the distribution of birthweights and mortality outcomes by the race/ethnicity of mothers. Here is a story in three figures.

1. The infant mortality rate gap is large

In the figures below I focus on White (non-Hispanic), Black (non-Hispanic), and Hispanic. Since White and Hispanic infants have such similar rates, the issue I’m most concerned with is the Black-White gap.

2. Infant mortality rates are drastically affected by birthweight. But at each birthweight the race/ethnic gap is small.

The Black mortality rates are higher among the high-birthweight infants, but there are very few deaths out there (note the log scale, which is necessary to even see those gaps).

3. Black mothers are much more likely to have very-lowbirthweight infants.

Again, because of the log scale, you can see the gaps clearly even though there are very few births at the very low end. Still, 1.8% of Black women’s infants are born below 1,000 grams, where a large portion of infants don’t survive.

So what explains the higher infant mortality rates among Black women’s infants? The overwhelming issue is birthweight. If they had the same mortality rates at each birthweight, I calculate, the gap would close by 10%. But if they had the same birthweight distributions, the gap would close by 88%.

In previous posts, I reported that women who experienced childhood hardships are more likely to have low-birthweight babies. And I described the weathering hypothesis, which suggests delaying first births only improves outcomes for infants if their mothers’ health is not already deteriorating in their 20s, as it more often is with Black women. With this evidence, it is clear that the major problem driving the infant-mortality gap is not care of newborn infants itself, but rather the long-term health of Black women.

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