The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 29, 2015

Let's capture a more accurate picture of America's missing black men

More than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, African Americans' economic and social progress has stagnated, especially for black men.

New approaches to overcome these problems are critical, but they require sound analysis. Unfortunately, the New York Times recently weakened our understanding of the issues by presenting erroneous and misleading information in their front-page story “1.5 Million Missing Black Men” and accompanying editorial. The editorial contends that “there are only 83 black men living outside of jail for every 100 black women—in striking contrast to the white population, where men and women are about equal in numbers.”

High incarceration rates do lower substantially the number of resident black men relative to black women. But the Times analysis goes wrong by failing to recognize the scale of the Census Bureau’s undercount of black men. All Census population data by locality and by race are based on the counts obtained in the decennial census. However, as the Census Bureau admits, the count is imperfect and black men are undercounted most.

Let’s start by counting all living individuals, ages 25 to 54, incarcerated or not. In the 2010 Census, the racial category “black alone or in combination with other races” includes about a million fewer men than women in the same age group. However, after the Census demographic adjustment for the undercount, the overall shortfall of black men relative to black women is only 175,000, or less than 2 percent of the population of black women. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the number of black men actually equals the number of black women. The 175,000 difference arises partly because black men have higher death rates than black women (as do white men relative to white women) and partly because black immigrants are more often women (although this is partly offset by more male than female births.) As a result, the ratio of men to women declines with age, but not by much and certainly far less than the Times analysis implies.

Subtracting those in jail or prison sharply lowers the ratio from 98 black men in the community for every 100 black women down to 91 black men for every 100 black women. Overall, the number of black men not residing in the community is 774,000—a large and troubling number, but far less than the missing 1.5 million reported in the Times analysis.

It is striking that the Times largely ignored the undercount since it is well known and since past Times editorials have argued that not adjusting for the undercount unfairly reduces resources available to minority communities. In their 1989 book, Reynolds Farley and Walter Allen note that, among 20- to 34-year-olds, the 87 black men for every 100 black women becomes 97 after adjusting for the undercount.

Notwithstanding their factual error, the Times analysis and editorial focus on one of the nation’s most urgent challenges—the limited social and economic progress of black men. The danger is that bad numbers can lead people to believe such a large number of “missing” men are dead, rather than uncounted. Policymakers, in turn, could become more likely to ignore the unobserved 25- to 54-year-old men and fail to confront such systemic barriers as excessive child support penalties, too few opportunities for higher education and training, and too little emphasis on employment discrimination.

No one solution can reduce the high rates of disconnection and incarceration that black men face because the underlying causes are so intertwined. An agenda to improve the economic and social progress of black men should include reducing structural barriers, such as residential and school segregation and the mass incarceration of black men and boys, often for nonviolent drug offenses. Improving prosecutorial decisions and state policies can lower incarceration rates and expanding apprenticeship can narrow the postsecondary achievement gaps by race and sex and smooth the transition of black young men into rewarding careers. Having learning take place mostly on the job, making the tasks and classroom work highly relevant to their careers, and providing participants wages while they learn are especially beneficial to men, including minority men. Apprenticeships provide a natural, often one-on-one, mentor who supports and encourages an apprentice on the job and at school. By raising their skills, apprenticeships give graduates a strong sense of occupational identity and occupational pride. The added earnings and enhanced professional pride among black men completing apprenticeships will reduce disconnectedness, and ultimately strengthen families and communities.

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