Ok GCP parents, time to turn away from the seemingly endless stream of national bad news coming at us and focus on some good news about African American men. A team of researchers from The University of Virginia, The Institute of Family Studies and Columbia University recently released a report, “Black Men Making It in America” which reveals that contrary to public opinion (as shaped by the media), millions of Black men are succeeding economically in America today.
The researchers tracked a group of men born between 1957 and 1964 from their early years to ages 50 and older. They found that the share of Black men who are in the middle class or higher–as measured by their family income–has risen from 39% in 1960 to 57% in 2016. At the same time, the share of black men who are poor has fallen from 41% in 1960 to 18% in 2016. The report notes, “In other words, a substantial share of black men in America are realizing the American Dream—at least financially—and a clear majority of them are not poor.”
The report does note that the percentage of Black men who make it into the middle class or higher by age 50 is significantly smaller than that of their white or Asian peers. It found that Black men experience more upward and downward mobility over the course of their economic lifetimes, and the economic gap between Black men and white men is bigger when they are in their fifties than when they are in their thirties. But it focused on determining the pathways that Black men are following to achieve economic success. Here’s what they found to be the engines that drive it:
1. Education and work. Black men who worked full time and had at least some college education were much more likely to be members of the middle or upper class by the time they got to their 50s. And 52% of Black men who avoided contact with the criminal justice system in their youth have moved into the middle or upper class by midlife, compared with only 28% of Black men who had contact with the criminal justice system when they were young. The researchers note that education, employment and time in the criminal justice system are also linked in predictable ways to the odds that fifty-something year old Black men will remain in poverty.
2. The Military, Marriage, and the Black Church. Black men who served in the military had a 72% better chance making it into the middle class or higher by 50 years old than those who did not serve. The U.S. military provides stable work, good health care, housing, and opportunities for advancement, champions virtues such as duty, responsibility, loyalty, and perseverance, and pushes racial integration. As such it has served as an important route into the middle class. And Black men’s marital status is strongly associated with their economic status at midlife. In fact, the odds of Black men making it to the middle or upper class were at least three times higher for those who marry. (This is due in part to the fact that their black wives contribute a higher share of income to the household than other married women.) In addition, Black men who frequently attended church or other religious services at a young age are also more likely to reach the middle class or higher when they are in their fifties.
3. A Sense That They Are In Control of Their Lives. Black men who score above average in their sense of agency—measured by reports that they are directing the course of their lives versus feeling like they are not in control of their lives—as young men or teenagers in the late 1970s are more likely to be prosperous as fifty-something men in the 2010s. The ability to feel in control may be rooted in a variety of factors, including advantages they experienced growing up, expectations of future success, underlying personality traits, or an orientation to life they adopted. Young black men who see themselves as captains of their fate are more likely to be financially successful in their fifties, even after controlling for factors like their education, employment history, and marital status.
Of course we have to give this good news a sobering reality check. Only 17% of college graduates each year are Black men. And given that poverty and racial bias increase the chances that a young black male will get caught up in the criminal justice system, it is significant that those young men who are charged with a crime are 60% less likely to make it to the middle class. But the headlines of this report remain clear and positive: notwithstanding the disheartening racial news we hear on a daily basis, Black men are succeeding in America.
And GCP parents, we can use this research to help our young sons achieve. It appears that we can better their odds if we: focus on their education–both academic and spiritual; convey to them our clear, rational expectations of their success starting in their early years; and do all that we can to encourage them to feel as if they are masters of their fates (while at the same time making sure they have the emotional and common sense tools they need to survive as Black boys in this America). A tall order for sure, but the evidence that these methods work is powerful and motivating.