In recent weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement has focused on stopping the killing and mistreatment of black Americans by the police. The long history of horrific acts of violence and persistent abuse justifies this emphasis. But if we are to take seriously the notion that Black Lives Matter, police reform is not enough. The quality of the lives of people of color depend on much more than treatment by police or even overt acts of discrimination and expressions of prejudice. By many measures of quality of life, black Americans are at a disadvantage.
Consider some facts about economic well-being.
According to Current Population Survey data, the median household income for black Americans in 2018 was $41,692; for white non-Hispanic Americans the figure was 69 percent higher, at $70,642.
Wealth, another measure of economic health, is dramatically less for black Americans, according to the Federal Reserve. In 2016 dollars, median wealth for black families was $17,600. For whites it was nearly 10 times higher at $171,000. Wealth often takes the form of home equity; home ownership was much more common for whites than blacks, 73% compared to 45%.
Income is closely related to employment, and again there is a gap. In the first quarter of 2020, before the effects of the coronavirus were felt, the unemployment rate was 6.6% for black workers compared to 3.6% for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet blacks seek employment at the same rate as whites: the labor force participation rate was nearly identical at about 62%.
Black Americans are more likely to be impoverished. The Supplemental Poverty Measure accounts for not only cash income but also non-cash benefits that people receive through programs such as the earned income tax credit or food subsidies as well as subtractions for payments for taxes, medical care, child support and the like. Census data show that in 2018, one of five of black Americans was poor by this measure. The comparable figure for white non-Hispanics was about one of twelve.
The ability to earn income and acquire wealth are related to a person's skill level, which is closely related to educational attainment. Here again there is a gap. According to the Census Bureau, in 2019, 84.9% of blacks 25 years of age or older had completed high school or more advanced studies; the number for non-Hispanic whites was 92.3%. The disparity for those who had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education was greater: 26% for blacks compared to 40% for non-Hispanic whites.
The ability to benefit from education depends not only on the level of attainment but the quality of that education, which is related to resources spent, quality of curriculum, class-size, and qualifications of teachers. Students of color are more likely to be educated in schools that fall short by these measures, according to a Brookings Institution assessment.
Enjoying good health is important to quality of life as well as the ability to hold a good job. Having health insurance—and thus access to good medical care—is an important determinant of health. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that once again blacks are at a disadvantage. In 2018, 11.5% of the non-elderly black population was uninsured compared to 7.5% for the white population.
Measurements of well-being consistently show that blacks are at a disadvantage relative to whites. But it is important to remember that there are many well educated middle-class and professional black families – teachers, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs – who enjoy comfortable incomes, own their own homes, are steadily employed, are covered by health insurance, and have adequate resources to deal with contingencies. it is just that for a disproportionate number of black Americans, this level of well-being is harder to reach, and far too many live with economic insecurity and deprivation.
The question is what to do about all this. Some advocates for reducing racial inequality have argued for reparations—targeting money payments or other economic interventions to Americans who are descendants of slaves. Regardless of the merits of this approach, it will be a hard sell politically. More likely to gain support are policies that aim at reducing inequality generally—an approach that would disproportionately benefit black Americans. Some solutions are relatively easy, although often expensive: increasing the earned income tax credit, establishing universal health coverage, raising the minimum wage. Others are less easy to accomplish, such as building more low-income housing, expanding job training, increasing funding for low-resource (often predominantly black) schools and finding ways to staff these schools with better teachers. Even more difficult to overcome is the implicit bias that results in discrimination in employment and occupational advancement.
The gaps between blacks and whites in access to resources that affect quality of life is long-standing. If we really believe that Black Lives Matter, we will find effective ways to close these gaps.
Elliot K. Wicks, Ph. D.