- The greatest employment gains for full-time year-round workers in 2018 were among minority female-led households including a 4.2 percentage point increase among blacks.
- The poverty rate among female households declined 2.7 percentage points for blacks.
- The jobless rate for black women in August fell to 4.4% — an historic low.
These were the top stories coming out of the White House a month ago for the week of September 6, 2019: The White House’s response to Hurricane Dorian; Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Poland, Ireland, and Iceland; and the Defense Department's allocation of $3.6 billion dollars in military construction money to the US-Mexico border wall.
Underneath today's clash and clang of controversy over presidential impeachment, public policy and personal initiative can slowly and seemingly imperceptibly improve life in America. That was the case two decades ago, amid the swirling arguments over the mostly party-line impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the Senate’s mostly party-line refusal to remove him from office.
This 1998-99 controversy occurred as conservative welfare and crime-control reforms were vastly reducing welfare dependency and crime control in America’s central cities far more than their advocates had expected.
These reforms were pioneered by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and advanced mostly by Republicans, but also by many Democrats. The Clinton 1994 crime package helped marginally, and Speaker Newt Gingrich successfully pushed federal welfare changes through Congress, which Clinton, after vetoing two versions, finally signed.
Today, beneath the clamor, one can find evidence of unexpected improvement. During the Trump presidency, manufacturing and blue-collar wages are up, income inequality is lessening, unemployment among blacks and Hispanics is at record lows, disability and food stamp rolls are sharply down, and noncollege-graduate whites are making more economic gains than more educated whites.
All these are reversals of trends that most experts thought would continue indefinitely. They look like fulfillment of Trump’s campaign promises, and they suggest that his policies — the tax cut, trade protections, various methods of discouraging low-skill immigration — have succeeded more than most predicted. Other things may have also contributed: Obama policies, as some Democrats argue, the almost total end of low-skill Mexican immigration in 2007-08, reduction in jobs sent offshore to China.
And something else, which has been widely ignored: “black Americans have been making rapid progress along most important dimensions of well-being since the turn of the millennium,” as Columbia undergraduate Coleman Hughes wrote in his latest article in the invaluable online magazine Quillette.
From 2001 to 2017, Hughes pointed out, the incarceration rate for black men age 18 to 29 dropped by more than 60%. In those years, the teenage birth rate among black women declined 63%. Black life expectancy increased by some 3.5 years.
Between 1999-2000 and 2016-17 the number of blacks awarded bachelor’s degrees rose 82%. A Federal Reserve survey showed 60% of blacks saying they are doing better financially than their parents.
How do we account for this enormous and beneficial change? It seems far from a coincidence that today’s young blacks grew up in an America shaped by 1990s welfare and crime reform.
There’s certainly evidence that children of single mothers do better when they see their parent as a self-sufficient working person rather than an idle welfare recipient. And it seems likely that adolescents growing up in neighborhoods with sharply reduced crime may be less likely to commit crimes themselves than those coming of age in the crack-infested neighborhoods of the late 1980s.
People tend to do what they think others expect, in two senses of the word: prescriptively (you should do this) and predictively (you’re likely to do this). The 1990s reforms set higher prescriptive expectations and produced higher predictive expectations as well. Barack Obama, with his professional competence and faithfulness to family, was surely a helpful role model.
The lesson is that no matter how nasty politics gets, life on the ground can get better, indeed much better than almost anyone predicted, with help from good public policies and motivated personal effort.