By Mary Rezac
A recent study shows that when it comes to upward economic mobility, family and community makes a notable difference in the lives of black boys.
The study found that significant gaps exist between black and white boys when it comes to upward economic mobility throughout their lifetimes, while these differences are nearly non-existent between black and white girls.
While racism is widely considered to be a factor in that economic disparity between white and black boys, numerous other factors are also at play, according to the study conducted by researchers Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie Jones, and Sonya Porter at The Equality of Opportunity Project.
Black boys on the whole face an upward economic mobility gap even when raised in similar neighborhoods, families and income levels as white boys, the study found.
But the study found one notable exception – black boys from impoverished neighborhoods do as well as white boys from similar neighborhoods when there are a lot of black fathers and married couples present in the community. The study found that the presence of fathers matters at a community level, meaning that even black boys without resident fathers did as well as white boys, if they came from communities with high concentrations of black fathers and married couples.
“That is a pathbreaking finding,” William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist who studies economic struggles of black men, told the New York Times. “They’re not talking about the direct effects of a boy’s own parents’ marital status. They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.”
Some responses to the study have claimed that family structure matters minimally for the upward mobility of black boys. However, Dr. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, told CNA that those takes ignore this important finding about marriage structure at the neighborhood level.
Those “are obviously two important family structure indicators that matter at the neighborhood level, so the point there is it’s not just what happens in the individual households, but what’s sort of happening to the family in your neighborhood or your community that would seem to matter for mobility,” Wilcox told CNA.
Wilcox also noted in an article on the study that on the whole, young black men are much more likely to be raised in single-parent homes than young white men, so “if you control for household income growing up, you miss the ways in which racial differences in family structure affect outcomes for boys via their impact on family income.”
Furthermore, the study compares the household income of black boys to their individual income as grown men. Wilcox said a more accurate comparison would be to compare the household income of black boys to the household income of those same boys when they reach adulthood, in order to measure the impact that marriage and family structure continues to have on income.
“I think you would find a very different story, because as they note in the study, blacks marry at much lower levels than do whites, and…you do find that the family structure plays a major role in accounting for the contemporary family income gap, or household income gap between blacks and whites today,” he said.
Bishop Shelton Fabre, chair of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Subcommittee for African-American Catholics, told CNA that this study shows the need to support and encourage marriage and fatherhood in all communities.
“I know that its manifestation in the African American community is unique, but I think in many cultures, that the whole notion of what it means to be a father, and how to support men who are fathers, and to call men to fatherhood, I think that that’s a need,” he said, “more than just in the African American community.”
The Church can and does encourage fatherhood and married couples especially through marriage preparation programs, Fabre said, as well as Marriage Encounter retreats that support couples throughout their marriage.
Furthermore, the rise of apostolates geared toward men, such as “That Man is You”, show the growing need for providing support for fathers and men in the Christian community, Fabre noted.
“That Man is You” is a Catholic ministry for men that says it “honestly addresses the pressures and temptations that men face in our modern culture, especially those relating to their roles as husbands and fathers.”
The Church is also able to fill in some of the gaps in places where fewer fathers are present, Fabre noted, through mentorship programs at the parish level or through organizations such as the Knights of St. Peter Claver. The Knights of St. Peter Claver is the largest African American Catholic lay organization in the United States, and “provides mentorship and opportunities for young black men to come to know their faith, and that mentorship certainly would get into what does it mean to be a good father,” Fabre said.
It’s important that the Church emphasize the unique things that fathers and mothers bring to families, Fabre added.
“A mother’s love, and a mother’s example, are unique. But the role of father is unique as well. The father brings that sense of security and stability, and other things that young men need to come to know,” he said. “I think mothers provide a lot, but for a young man to have a father to guide him, and to just listen to him and bounce ideas off of him, and help him to learn from his mistakes, and to make his choice that much sweeter, I think that’s the role of a father. I think it’s because a father has a particular role, and a mother has a particular role in the family. And children need that.”