Commentary | Education

A bleak future for black children

(This piece was originally published on December 15 in The Daily Voice.)

The future for black children and youth is worrisome. Even during supposedly “good” economic times too many black children grow up facing severe economic disadvantage. This normally bad situation is being made considerably worse by the recession. If we do not act quickly and effectively we should expect to see significant increases in negative physical, psychological, social and economic outcomes for black children and youth over the next decades.

From 2007 to 2008, the country experienced a historic rise in the number of households that did not have consistent and dependable access to sufficient food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls these households “food insecure.” The number of food insecure households increased by over 4 million nationally to reach 17.1 million. In 2008, 10.7 percent of white households were food insecure, but 25.7 percent of black households were in this condition. Although the official 2009 USDA data is not yet available, it is likely that the numbers of food insecure households increased by a large amount this year.

Hunger is a problem in itself. But it also matters because of the long-term harm it causes, particularly in children. Children growing up in food insecure households are more likely to be in poor physical and psychological health. They have more behavioral problems and do worse in school. We want black children to do better in school, but academic improvements are not likely to occur when more and more black children are growing up in households facing hunger.

Recent economic research is more specific about what negative educational outcomes we should expect in coming years. University of California, Davis economists, Ann Huff Stevens and Jessamyn Schaller, find that children who have a parent who experiences a job loss are 15 percent more likely to be held back a grade in school. Black children in “good” economic times have a high rate of grade retention. In bad economic times, black workers are hit harder than average from job losses. Therefore, we should expect significant increases in black students being held back in the coming years. Children who are held back in school are also more likely to drop out of school. It is going to be even more difficult to reduce the black high school drop out rate in the wake of the Great Recession.

Black teens had the unfortunate circumstance of being the only major demographic group to see an increase in unemployment from October to November. While the country was pleasantly surprised by a decline in the unemployment rate from 10.2 percent in October to 10 percent in November, the unemployment rate for black teens rose from 41.3 percent to 49.4 percent over the same period. White teens experienced a decline in unemployment from 25.3 percent in October to 23 percent in November.

Unemployment today bodes ill for the future of black teens. The economist Andrew Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies point out [PDF] that “the more teens work this year, the more they work next year,” and this relationship is especially the case for low income and minority youth. Sum adds, “Less work experience today leads to less work experience tomorrow and lower earnings down the road. Disadvantaged teens who work in high school are more likely to remain in high school than their peers who do not work. . . . National evidence shows that pregnancy rates for teens are lower in metropolitan areas where employment rates for teen girls are higher.” If we want black youth to have good economic futures, we need to get them jobs today.

The black unemployment rate has been in the double digits for over a year. Unfortunately, we can expect unusually high black unemployment rates at least until 2014. The black children and youth living through these years are have a rough future ahead of them. They are likely to do much worse that the black children and youth who were lucky enough to live through the Great 1990s when the black employment rate rose to historic heights and black poverty fell to its lowest level on record.