Accuracy in Media

Correlation turned into causation and then into an attack on Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a piece on Vox about a recent study of economic mobility.

“The massive new study on race and economic mobility in America, explained,” by Dylan Matthews, laid out the results of research undertaken by the Census Bureau and some academics to track the rate at which various groups move up or down the economic ladder using census race data and their parents’ tax records.

The key findings of the study, which looked at income levels from 989 to 2015, are that black Americans have dramatically lower rates of upward mobility – moving ahead of their parents in earnings – than white Americans and that almost all the difference was among men.

Matthews report that black men born into families at the 75th percentile of income distribution wind up, on average, 12 percentiles behind white men born into equally affluent families. Black women actually do a slightly better job than white women of moving up the economic ladder, although they still earn $45,261 vs. $57,559 on average for white women.

“It appears,” Matthews writes, “based on this new analysis, that the massive gap between black and white women’s salaries can be explained by differences in family background.”

With men, it was different, Matthews said. “Regardless of their parents’ earnings, black men on average worked fewer hours, earned lower wages and were less likely to work than white men, period.”

That’s where Moynihan entered the scene. Then a labor economist but later a U.S. Senator from New York, Moynihan made big news in 1965 with a report that said U.S. policy toward the poor was creating a permanent underclass and destroying black families by devaluing fatherhood.

The report “was widely decried as racist by many sociologists for its characterization of the black family as pathological and dysfunctional,” Matthews wrote. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a black writer, called it, “’a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing that black men should be empowered at the expense of black women.’”

He then quotes a tweet from Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University: “We should not focus our antiracist policies on black boys and yet again neglect black girls on the basis of racist ideas that black girls are strong (and black boys are weak). We must not let this study become the new Moynihan report.”

Matthews is quick to assure us black women are still discriminated against. “The fact that a far greater share of black women grow up in economic disadvantage than white women is itself a product of discrimination,” he wrote.

The bright side, Matthews wrote, is the study debunks two conservative tropes – Charles Murray’s contention that “black Americans are on average less intelligent than white Americans, and that this gap is most likely genetic in origin” and that it’s important to have a father in the home.

“Black men and black women have very similar genetics,” he tells us. “So genetic factors cannot explain why black men experience a mobility gap relative to white men while black women do not.”

“In my humble opinion, these results put an empirical nail in the coffin of The Bell Curve,” Harvard economist David Deming tweeted, referring to Murray’s seminal book.

Matthews says the data show black men are behind their white peers in upward mobility regardless of whether they were raised in stable two-parent homes or by single mothers. This “helps debunk the social conservative theory that lower marriage rates and higher levels of single parenthood among black Americans are largely responsible for the black-white income gap.”

Research shows kids from homes where the parents are married earn more, go to school for longer, attain more degrees, are less likely to be incarcerated and are more successful in a variety of other measures. But it’s easier to blame Charles Murray and race than to address these harder truths.

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