Unemployment: The All-but-Certain Fate of Too Many Poor Black Boys

Bebeto Matthews / AP

Study after study has proven that when children are sequestered in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, their educational and economic opportunities are stunted, creating enduring cycles of poverty.

But a new paper, written by a team of researchers led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty, indicates that these findings have yet another critical element: Concentrated poverty can be significantly more detrimental to young boys than to young girls.

In America it’s generally been true that men are more likely to be employed than women. According to the most current data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even as women have entered the workforce in greater numbers, men’s labor-force participation rate is around 69 percent, while women’s is around 57 percent. This division in the labor force holds among middle- and upper-income families, but Chetty and his fellow researchers find that when poor kids become adults, a reverse gender-employment gap appears, with poor boys more likely than poor girls to become unemployed adults.

For Poor Families, the Gender-Employment Gap Reverses

Equality of Opportunity Project

Chetty has led a lot of recent research into the role that neighborhoods play in children’s lifelong economic fortunes. To investigate the impact of parental income  and neighborhood choice on children, Chetty and his fellow researchers looked at data from the IRS from 1996 to 2012 to determine a sample of Americans’ household incomes and locations. After tracking the eventual wages, college-attendance rates, and employment of these parent’s children, Chetty and his colleagues found that by and large, poor children become poor adults, and rich children become rich adults. Also, kids from middle-and upper income families were more likely than kids from poor families to be employed as adults.

But the outcomes are significantly worse for poor black boys. Girls from poor families are more likely to find work and to get further in school than boys who grew up in similar circumstances. The researchers detected a similar gender gap among poor children who grew up in single-parent households, but of all the variables tested, growing up in concentrated poverty and growing up in an area that was predominately black were the strongest predictors of adult male unemployment.

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There are other forces at play as well. Geography can make a difference: By the time they turned 30, boys in Charlotte who came from families at the lowest level of the economic ladder were 12 percentage points less likely than their female peers to be employed, but in New York City that gap narrowed to 3 percentage points. Crime is another variable. “Lower-income families are more likely to be black, and black men are more likely to be incarcerated than white men,” the authors note. It may be that in areas where jobs are limited, illegal activities are more lucrative than formal employment. Chetty and his colleagues speculate that criminal activity is more likely to attract boys than girls, leaving boys in a much more vulnerable position. Once young men have been incarcerated, their opportunities for employment after release are vastly reduced, continuing the cycle. The gender reversal is also important because even though poorer women are employed at higher rates than their male counterparts, women’s wages—on average—still fall below men’s. That can make climbing the economic ladder a tough proposition for poor families.

The paper’s findings have implications that reach well beyond those in black or poor communities. For one thing, the researchers found that the reverse gender employment gap among poor children may in fact be one of the driving forces behind lagging male labor force participation nationwide—a trend that is typically attributed to the aging of the American population. And for another, it’s a paper that, like a lot of Chetty’s previous research, strongly suggests that as long as residential segregation continues, poor black children have little hope of having a life better than their parents.

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