Contents | January/February 2003

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More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.

More on poverty from The Atlantic Monthly.

More on race from The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

"The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done" (March 1997)
A Clinton appointee who resigned in protest over the new welfare law explains why it is so bad and suggests how its worst effects could be mitigated. By Peter Edelman

"Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors" (March 2000)
Imagine living in a neighborhood where a sign in a laundromat asks patrons to be sure, before putting their clothes in the wash, to empty all pockets of bullets. By Jim Myers

"The Code of the Streets" (May 1994)
A social scientist takes us inside a world most of us only glimpse in grisly headlines—"Teen Killed in Drive By Shooting"—to show us how a desperate search for respect governs social relations among many African-American young men. By Elijah Anderson

"The Origins of the Underclass" (July 1986)
Black urban ghettos are poorer and more isolated today than they have ever been. The question remaining is how to reverse the effects of what has become a self-sustaining culture. By Nicholas Lemann

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Street Life" (August 18, 1999)
Elijah Anderson talks about his new book, Code of the Street, and the importance of looking honestly at life in the inner city.

Flashbacks: "The Welfare Debate" (May 1995)
Welfare "as we know it" may be headed for extinction. Two articles, including Irving Kristol's 1971 treatment of the subject, offer past perspectives.

Roundtable: "The Future of Welfare" (March 12, 1997)
Like it or not, welfare reform has arrived, in the form of a bill signed into law last year by President Clinton. The Atlantic's Jack Beatty convenes a panel of experts to discuss the future of welfare in this country.

The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2003
[Welfare & Poverty]

The Black Gender Gap

It may be the greatest policy achievement in recent history: over the past decade significant numbers of formerly welfare-dependent black women have successfully entered the work force. But what about black men?
by Katherine Boo
en years ago shoe-leather urbanologists found their primary source material in the late-night crack market. Today they're better off rising early and divesting themselves of $1.10 in pocket change to ride the U8 bus, a leading economic indicator of the American inner city. The U8, which serves the easternmost corner of Washington, D.C., is what's known in public-transport parlance as a circuit bus. Its African-American riders are among the most isolated of the urban poor: those who not only can't afford private transportation but can't afford to live near efficient versions of the public kind. These men and women rely instead on buses that wend from one remote housing project to another, collecting riders who are eventually deposited at some central location from which they can take subways or straight-line buses to where the jobs are.

Further reading
selected by Katherine Boo
Every weekday at dawn the U8 offers its passengers the predictable dystopian ghetto vista: a drug-treatment clinic, its parking lot aglint with spent needles; a mini-mart with a sign on its door begging, "PLEASE!!! No ski masks allowed!!!!" Only the view inside the U8 is novel and promising. Wearing secondhand suits, often accessorized by fold-up strollers, the U8's riders are the sleepy embodiment of what may be the greatest social-policy achievement in recent U.S. history: the upward mobility of what many not long ago deemed a permanent underclass.

From a peak of 5.1 million families in 1994, welfare rolls have dropped to 2 million, while the poverty rate for African-American children has hit an all-time low. African-American teenage childbearing has declined, and the median annual income for African-American households has surpassed $27,000, reaching the highest level ever recorded. The U8's hundreds of daily riders suggest how firmly the idea of work has taken root even in public-housing communities where a decade ago 90 percent of residents lived primarily on government support.

Only when we break down the numbers by sex do these soothing data bare the domestic-policy challenge that has to be seriously engaged. Something vital is missing on America's U8s: black males.

n the most generous gloss, the 1996 federal welfare-reform act aimed to do more than promote work and reduce the tax burden of welfare payments. Explicitly and ambitiously, it endeavored to strengthen historically fragile low-income families. Last year, declaring the task of getting people to work well under way, the President and congressional Republicans put the promotion of marriage atop their social-policy agenda. But even as they spoke, welfare reform's inroads on poverty were opening a chasm between the status and prospects of black women and those of the men they might marry.

A grim home economics: In the 1990s the employment of young black females dramatically increased, despite the fact that many of those working women were single mothers. Meanwhile, the employment of their less-encumbered male counterparts stagnated, even in a period of unprecedented economic expansion. Today black women are more likely to work than white or Hispanic women, whereas black men are less likely than their counterparts. Among non-college-educated young blacks the gender gap is starker. Findings by the social scientists Paul Offner and Harry Holzer, published recently by the Brookings Institution, indicate that whereas young non-college-educated Hispanic males now work at about the same rate as their white counterparts, the rate for African-Americans is a staggering 30 percentage points lower. In fact, fully half of these young black men are unemployed or not in the labor force—and these figures don't even include men in jail. A ten-day census of early-morning ridership on the U8 last autumn tallied 2.7 women for every man.

Set aside the profound emotional implications of this gender gap—the loneliness of newly working women struggling to raise children by themselves; the resentment of men watching female contemporaries succeed, with considerable government assistance, in jobs at which they themselves have failed or from which they've been displaced by women. The greater poignancy comes as social science increasingly ratifies a conservative cliché: for children a two-parent household is the most effective anti-poverty program we know. Three out of four white children are born to such households. Only one in three black children is.

The children of single parents are more likely to be abused, become sick, use drugs, commit crimes, be imprisoned, and have out-of-wedlock children—the litany, from decades of longitudinal study, is familiar. Clearly, two-parent households have the potential to create the continuity-rich context in which children's intellectual and emotional qualities may take wing. Yet the grave predicament of the contemporary black male, and its fundamental connection to the fate of black children, has managed to slip quietly through two distinct cracks: the one between competing special-interest blocs of the poverty industry, and the one between the hardened ideological categories of right and left.

Paul Offner has felt a chill from both directions. A Princeton-trained social scientist, Offner is best known in public-welfare circles for a radical career choice. In 1995 he decided to road-test some of the policy prescriptions he had devised while working as a senior aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and as the chief health-and-welfare counselor to the Senate Finance Committee. Offner accepted a job administering what was then one of America's most dysfunctional urban bureaucracies: Mayor Marion Barry's District of Columbia Medicaid office, whose cost overruns had left Washington near bankruptcy. While stabilizing costs and constructing one of the country's most inclusive health-coverage programs for the poor and the working class, Offner was struck by how the funding patterns of what he calls the welfare-industrial complex contribute to the neglect of black men. "The emotional testimony at congressional hearings on welfare reform is inevitably going to be about day care, or welfare time limits, or definitions of activities that qualify as work," he says, "because women and children are the social-services constituency—the individuals with whom the government and the nonprofits interact. Men are barely on the screen, except as deadbeat dads. But if you go into families' homes"—Offner is a veteran volunteer tutor of Southeast D.C. schoolchildren—"you can't help thinking about how much difference a decent father could make in how a child behaves and develops."

The best contemporary social science on nonworking black males tends to wrestle with causality: Why did so many black men abandon the labor force in the first place? Does the legacy of slavery, which gravely distorted kin and work relationships, weigh more heavily on males than on females? Which came first, and matters more, the decline in the manufacturing sector or the rise in black men's incarceration rates?

If there is less rigorous discussion about how, now, to create opportunity for black males, it may be because the political utility of such a debate is uncertain. Drawing acute distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor, the political right resists heavy investment in a child-abandoning, work-resistant, lawbreaking population. Buttressing the right's position is the fact that previous federally funded efforts to put young black males to work have produced few appreciable results. The left, meanwhile, is reluctant to advocate for men in the face of the considerable needs of women—such as the need for better child-care options than the typically stultifying urban centers to which welfare reform's next generation has been entrusted.

Yet there is artifice in the notion that black men and women are pitted against each other in a fight for a limited pool of public aid. After all, the plight of the poor black male translates into the plight of the ludicrously overfreighted poor black female. (Black women now earn 96 percent of what white women earn, but that's still on average only $15,000 a year. Surely they could also use the 70 percent of white male income that black men earn: $20,000.) On the U8 one morning the most animated discussion among young mothers concerned the much anticipated release of a painkiller called Bayer Back and Body. A working, child-nurturing partner would certainly be a stronger anodyne, but the R&D isn't there. Offner notes that whereas he can secure plenty of public and private funding for research on health care, the extensive studies of the poor black male population that he's doing with Harry Holzer have been self-financed.

For those willing to write off a generation or two of children and fathers, a case can be made for policy passivity. The current rift between black men and women may be simply a transitional trauma in the process of birthing a better culture. It's also possible that black women will solve some of their problems by marrying in larger numbers outside their race. But at this moment in history new developments inside and outside the inner city may provide new opportunities for social policy to reach the young black male.

The level of promise can easily be overstated. First, it's harder to help poor black men get jobs than poor black women, in part because many employers perceive women to be more trainable, a better employment risk. Second, as the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson persuasively contends, employment does not necessarily make black men more likely to marry. (Whether this is because of slavery's legacy or because the decently employed black male has so many romantic options that he may not be inclined to choose just one is a live sociological question.) Still, inside ghettos the market for crack has significantly weakened in recent years, and no equally profitable illicit product has yet replaced it. Thus the appeal of "the honest eight"—the legitimate job—may be quietly increasing among men, along with the appeal of a breadwinning woman. And outside ghettos, more demonstrably, there's a rich new body of knowledge, gleaned from welfare reform, about how to bring the seemingly unemployable into the economic mainstream.

t's worth recalling that for decades the government failed miserably in a series of schemes to encourage welfare mothers to work. But in the 1990s rigorous evaluations of local welfare-to-work programs provided a detailed blueprint from which the current law was constructed. That new law contained a vital acknowledgment: rectifying disincentives and adjusting outlooks among the poor costs more in the short run than issuing welfare checks. Since 1996 we've been willing to pay that short-term cost in behalf of low-income women. Unfortunately, most poor black men lack the singular qualification that made their female counterparts the object of sustained intellection and public money: consumption of taxpayers' dollars in the form of monthly welfare checks.

What if unemployed fathers who owed child support were mandated to participate in work-related activities or community service? What if they then received stipends while learning skills or searching for jobs with the assistance of community-based programs that have established a track record in helping women? Program evaluations tentatively find that intense, employment-oriented programs for disadvantaged fathers increase the likelihood of their working, paying child support, and—for the most estranged fathers—becoming more involved with their kids. Although the 1996 law allows states to spend welfare-reform money on such programs, a 2000 survey found that most states chose not to mandate them. And in the states that were willing to invest in men, stiff remedies for their disadvantages consistently lost out to soft, milky ones. Thus today poor noncustodial fathers can easily avail themselves of any number of group-therapy-like programs to inculcate responsible fatherhood. But if those fathers take the government hint, find a job, and actually marry the similarly encouraged mothers of their children, the newlyweds will face a significant increase in their tax burden because of the way the Earned Income Tax Credit is structured. As both the old and new welfare systems have demonstrated, financial incentives can change family patterns. But for fathers many of those incentives still run in the wrong direction.

The left used to argue that a narrow population neglected would erupt into a wide public threat. This is perhaps the moment to invoke the specter of long, hot summers and armed, envenomed men. But in truth inner-city women, not outsiders, are the ones who will bear—are bearing—the brunt of the black gender gap.

Nonetheless, and beyond all expectation, many of those women have managed to hold up their end of the new social contract. As they raise the next generation, a generation that of course includes males, it is perhaps not just intimate family ties but larger civic ones that merit re-examination. Low-income men who have dropped out of the labor force obviously lack the innocence and promise of, say, the dozens of tiny riders on the U8, clinging like limpets to mothers who will shortly deliver them to Kiddies Kollege, All My Children, and the other bleak federally funded nurseries clustering around the U8's points of debarkation. But for better or worse, the long-term well-being of those children—and of their country—depends less on their day care than on their fathers.

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Katherine Boo is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a reporter for The Washington Post. She has received a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her work on poverty.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2003; The Black Gender Gap; Volume 291, No. 1; 107-109.