Various figures denote vexing social problems. They include 10,000 (the number of new baby boomers eligible for Social Security and Medicare every day), 10.2 percent (what the unemployment rate would be if 1.2 million discouraged workers had not recently stopped looking for jobs), $9.9 trillion (the Government Accountability Office calculation of the gap between the expected revenues and outlays for state and local governments during the next 50 years), $76.4 trillion (the GAO's similar estimate of the federal government's 75-year fiscal shortfall).
Remedies for these problems can at least be imagined. But America's tragic number — tragic because it is difficult to conceive remedial policies — is 70 percent. This is the portion of African-American children born to unmarried women. It may explain what puzzles Nathan Glazer.
Writing in The American Interest, Glazer, sociology professor emeritus at Harvard, considers it a "paradox" that the election of Barack Obama "coincided with the almost complete disappearance from American public life of discussion of the black condition and what public policy might do to improve it." This, says Glazer, is the black condition:
Employment prospects for young black men worsened even when the economy was robust. By the early 2000s, more than a third of all young black non-college men were incarcerated.
More than 60 percent of black high school dropouts born since the mid-1960s go to prison. Mass incarceration blights the prospects of black women seeking husbands. So does another trend noted by sociologist William Julius Wilson: "In 2003-2004, for every 100 bachelor's degrees conferred on black men, 200 were conferred on black women."
Because changes in laws and mores have lowered barriers, the black middle class has been able to leave inner cities, which have become, Glazer says, "concentrations of the poor, the poorly educated, the unemployed and unemployable." High out-of-wedlock birth rates mean a constantly renewed cohort of adolescent males without male parenting, which means disorderly neighborhoods and schools.
Glazer thinks it is possible that for some young black males, "acting white" — trying to excel in school — is considered "a betrayal of their group culture." This severely limits opportunities in an increasingly service economy where working with people matters more than working with things in manufacturing employment.
Now, from the Educational Testing Service, comes a report about "The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped," written by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley. It examines the "startling" fact that most of the progress in closing the gap in reading and mathematics occurred in the 1970s and '80s. This means "progress generally halted for those born around the mid-1960s, a time when landmark legislative victories heralded an end to racial discrimination."
Only 35 percent of black children live with two parents, which partly explains why, while only 24 percent of white eighth-graders watch four or more hours of television on an average day, 59 percent of their black peers do. (Privileged children waste their time on new social media and other very mixed blessings of computers and fancy phones.)
Black children also are disproportionately handicapped by this class-based disparity: By age 4, the average child in a professional family hears about 20 million more words than the average child in a working-class family and about 35 million more than the average child in a welfare family — a child often alone with a mother who is a high school dropout.
After surveying much research concerning many possible explanations of why progress stopped, particularly in neighborhoods characterized by a "concentration of deprivation," the ETS report says: "It is very hard to imagine progress resuming in reducing the education attainment and achievement gap without turning these family trends around — i.e., increasing marriage rates, and getting fathers back into the business of nurturing children." And: "It is similarly difficult to envision direct policy levers" to effect that.
So, two final numbers: Two decades, five factors. Two decades have passed since Barton wrote "America's Smallest School: The Family." He has estimated that about 90 percent of the difference in schools' proficiencies can be explained by five factors: the number of days students are absent from school, the number of hours students spend watching television, the number of pages read for homework, the quantity and quality of reading material in the students' homes — and, much the most important, the presence of two parents in the home. Public policies can have little purchase on these five, and least of all on the fifth.
George Will's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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