Carpe Diem

Chart of the day: Work vs. jail shares for black male high school dropouts ages 20-24 since 1935

blackmenThe chart above displays the share of black male high school dropouts ages 20-24 who are employed (blue line) versus the share that are institutionalized (mostly in jail) for various birth years starting in 1935. It’s based on data featured in a recent post by economist John Cochrane titled “Work and Jail,” who cites the work of Derek Neal and Armin Rick and their article “The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress since Smith and Welch.” John makes this observation:

In the last census [based on birth years between 1985 and 1989], 19.2% of [black high school dropouts ages] 20-24 years were employed, and 26.4 (!) percent were in jail. Read up, and it was not always thus. Of the cohort born in the 1930s, at the same age, 68% were employed and 6.7% were in jail — in a society and criminal justice system that was, whatever our current faults, much more overtly racist. The numbers for older men are just as shocking if you haven’t seen these before.

In other words, for the cohort born in the mid- to late-1930s who didn’t finish high school, there were more than ten black men in their early 20s working for every one black man in that age group in jail in the mid-1950s. For black men born in the mid-1970s and after who didn’t graduate from high school, there have been more of them in jail than working by their early 20s. For the most recent cohort group born between 1985 and 1989, there are 122 black high school dropouts ages 20-24 currently in jail for every 100 black male high school dropouts currently working.

As John comments further:

And really, that’s just the surface.  Neal and Rick’s numbers don’t count the numbers on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system. And their numbers miss one of the biggest effects: In America, once you have a criminal record — often even just an arrest record — getting a job becomes next to impossible. So the flow through the criminal justice system, as much as the numbers currently in jail, is an important measure of its effect.

How do we account for the disturbing trend in the graph above of the increased incarceration rate of young black men who also face declining rates of employment? Here are a few ideas: a) the War on Poverty and the accompanying growth of the Welfare State, b) the declining quality of government-run, unionized public schools, c) the minimum wage law, and d) the War on Drugs (mentioned by Cochrane and the authors of the study).

Comments welcome.


33 thoughts on “Chart of the day: Work vs. jail shares for black male high school dropouts ages 20-24 since 1935

  1. “Here are a few ideas: a) the War on Poverty and the accompanying growth of the Welfare State, b) the declining quality of government-run, unionized public schools, c) the minimum wage law, and d) the War on Drugs ”

    what’s to comment on?

    i think you pretty much nailed it.

    it does seem like the rates of change were highest from 1955 to 1975 so one might look to that period for a cause.

    all that said, it does occur to me that there is a potentially different explanation from this data.

    what has happened to the % of blacks from 20-24 who have not finished high school.

    i have no idea if this is the case or not, but it seems possible that if the % finishing high school rose it would like take out the same folks who were most likely to work and stay out of trouble.

    so, if say 10% of this cohort were going to jail all along, but the % graduating from high school rose to 70%, from 30%, the % who did not graduate and went to jail would rise from 14% to 33% despite no more people actually going to jail even as a % of the overall cohort of 20-24 year olds.

    until we nail that variable down, it’s hard to draw conclusions here.

    • Morganovich, I think you make an excellent point about the % of blacks who have not finished high school. I could not find data about dropout rates for blacks. But I did find data about dropout rates for 16 to 24 year olds by family income. For those who come from families in the lowest income quartile, dropout rates have plummeted in recent years:

      Percentage of high school dropouts among persons 16 through 24 years old (status dropout rate), by income level, for lowest quartile family income

      1970 – 28.0
      1980 – 27.0
      1990 – 24.3
      2000 – 20.7
      2010 – 13.8
      2012 – 11.8

      Of course, the decline in dropout rates does not explain the decrease in employment before 2000.

    • Agreed. Throw a line on the graph for children born out of wedlock. Boys growing up to be men need positive father role models.

  2. Also, you don’t need a driver’s license to go to jail, but you usually do to work. From experience placing interns with employers, I know that the majority of black youths do not have a driver’s license and the majority of white youths do. There are some other reasons I will not go into here about choices employers make when hiring entry-level workers.

      • A driver’s license is what you use to drive to work, and some jobs requiring driving, too. Most of the jobs in our area do not have public transit, and the “some else will bring me” to work wears out very quickly according to our area employers.

        Obtaining a driver’s license is also a sign a person can set a goal and obtain it. Our black students without drivers’ licenses are at a disadvantage to our white students with drivers’ licensees in the job market. The drug test failure rate is about the same though. We are a career college, employment is what we do, we need to work on this, but there are legal limitations to select programs for race.

  3. In addition to Prof. Perry’s point, there are a few more reasons.

    As Thomas Sowell said, the black family survived centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, but it could not survive the welfare state.


    Because the welfare state is marketed more to women. Black women in particular. Many government jobs are populated by black women earning $160K, where they could not earn even $20K in the private sector.

    This makes these black women think none of the black men they know are good enough, when in reality, the perceived high-flying job the black woman has is itself due to government fiat.

    72% of black babies are born out of wedlock (as are 29% of white babies). This would not be possible without government subsidization that encourages this.

    • As Thomas Sowell said, the black family survived centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, but it could not survive the welfare state.

      You are close: they are both black, very smart, and good friends, but that would be Walter Williams who said that.

        • Toads

          According to Prof. Perry, it was Thomas Sowell who said that :

          Hmm. That’s very interesting. Brainyquotes, the link provided by Dr. Perry in that post you cited *does* list Sowell as the author of that quote, however it can be found in Walter Williams syndicated column for March 5, 2014 at and, among others. What’s a person to believe?

          Actually I was thinking of an earlier Williams quote from the WSJ: “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do, and that is to destroy the black family.”

          • Thomas Sowell from 2004: “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

  4. America’s cities have waged a successful war on crime in the last 30 years…probably due largely to higher rates of incarceration.
    The drug war should end…but criminals have to be quarantined somehow.

  5. There is absolutely no evidence to support the “War on Drugs” as a cause for the disproportionate incarceration rate for young black males. This argument has been debunked over-and-over again:

    “Unfair drug policies are an equally popular explanation for black incarceration rates. Legions of pundits, activists and academics charge that the war on drugs is a war on minorities. They point to federal crack penalties, the source of the greatest amount of misinformation in the race and incarceration debate. (Read it all)” — High Incarceration Rate Of Blacks Is Function Of Crime, Not Racism, IBD

    In fact, decades of studies have shown that blacks actually fare better than their white counterparts after the point of arrest:

    “In 1993 a Justice Department study tracked the experience of more than 10,000 accused felons in America’s 75 largest cities found that black defendants fared better than their white counterparts—66% of black defendants were actually prosecuted, versus 69% of white defendants; among those prosecuted, 75% of blacks were convicted, as compared to 78% of whites.[8] Similarly, a 1996 analysis of 55,000 big-city felony cases found that black defendants were convicted at a lower rate than whites in 12 of the 14 federally designated felony categories.[9] This finding was consistent with the overwhelming consensus of other, previous, well-designed studies, most of which indicated that black defendants were slightly less likely to be convicted of criminal charges against them than white defendants.” — Decrying Imaginary Racism‏, FrontPageMag

    Progressivism is the disease, disintegration of the black family and the dissolution of the black community is the result.

    • “According to the ACLU’s original analysis, marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.


      • “Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”

        A statistic that may tell us a great deal about how marijuana is sold and used by blacks relative to whites while telling us absolutely nothing about racial bias.

        • Che,

          Whether or not it is due to racism, the facts are that a disportionate number of blacks are arrested and convicted for drug law violations. It doesn’t have to be because of racism for the law to have negative consequences. Drug prohibition hits blacks much harder than other groups.

          This is obviously one of the causes for the trend to higher institutionalization and lower employment levels for blacks shown above.

      • “Arthur Burnett Sr., a retired judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, said his 40 years on the bench showed him that police concentrate their numbers in black communities. It’s easier to catch people with marijuana in communities where there are “open-air” drug markets, rather than looking in homes, basements or country clubs, said Burnett. He is the CEO of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition based in Washington.” —“>AP

        Where, how and when you decide to buy, sell and use will have an impact on arrest statistics.

        • I spent the morning in Flint, Michigan, a predominantly black city, and saw many youths opening smoking marijuana who seemed to seek attention. I’m heading to Fenton, Michigan after lunch, a predominately white city about 15 miles south of Flint. I’ll report back later how many youths I see openly smoking marijuana in Fenton and their demeanor.

          I don’t doubt that both whites and blacks smoke a lot of marijuana possibly even equally, but I am surprised by how many whites are using the legal system and medical cards to do so.

          • I didn’t see anyone smoking marijuana in Fenton as I did in Flint. Unlike Flint, the air conditioning unit I went to work on was not stolen, and I did not hear any gun fire even though Fenton has a rifle and pistol range just outside of town. Fenton has had a lot of heroin related deaths of white young women, but they shoot up in the privacy of their homes when their parents are at work.

            I believe marijuana should be decriminalized, but many of the problems concerning the disparity in crime rates between blacks and whites appear to be cultural and income related around here. I don’t know if the local disparity is so much racist as just acceptable legal discrimination between different easily observable actions.

  6. “Fighting” crime is a business, a big business, that employs thousands, many of whom are criminals themselves. If indeed, civilization requires the incarceration of millions of humans who do not live up to the expectations of the most powerful of their neighbors perhaps this biological experiment in evolution has resulted in failure. An uninterested observer could make the case that incinerating Japanese school girls in 1945, attempting to eliminate the native American population over the course of 5 centuries or confiscating the wealth earned by the labor of the least influential of the population are crimes that dwarf that of street thugs or even financial buccaneers.

  7. The media along with whom they have designated as black leaders (Jackson, Sharpton, et al) and the Congressional Balck Caucus spend 95% of their output on ‘equality’ and 5% on education. When this gets reversed we’ll see some progress. But right now any attempts to improve the educational system are met with massive union and Democratic opposition.

    PBS had a recent show about a Richmond, CA 7th grade class. It was a madhouse, almost literally. They brought in a ‘Mindfulness’ instructor who over time calmed things down quite a bit. When I was in the 7th grade, 1952, 40% of my class was black (10% hispanic) and all were well behaved. This coincided with births in the year 1939. For those cohorts, the graph shows 70% employed, 8% in jail (still a lot). Now it’s 19% employed, 27% in jail.

    And we’ll never see this graph in the media.

  8. African American males commit over half the murders in the U.S. Maybe marijuana should be prescribed to those African American males that are prone to violence, to cut down the murder rate.

  9. Two factors which I do not see listed above:

    1. illegal and legal immigrants could well have displaced many low-skilled blacks who would have been hired in previous decades;

    2. the percentage of jobs which could be performed by low-skilled workers may have been decreasing over the past 5 decades.

  10. Surely, it is just a coincidence that the rate of incarceration accelerated just after the first attempt to pass civil rights legislation and leveled out after the welfare got going in earnest.

    It almost looks like a concerted effort to create a caste for African-Americans. Defined by birth, family and color regardless of the individual.

  11. I’m fairly certain that self-selection explains much if not most of this. In 2013, less than 13% of black men aged 25-29 (couldn’t find data for 20-24) lacked a high school diploma. So basically we’re looking at a group drawn heavily from the bottom 15% of the black population in terms of intelligence and/or noncognitive skills. Many of them may have failed to complete high school precisely because of trouble with the law or decided to drop out because of involvement in illegal activity.

    Back in the 50s, when black high school graduation rates were much lower, high school dropouts were a much broader cross-section of the black population. There were plenty of perfectly normal, high-functioning young black men who dropped out to work, or just because it was the norm in their communities.

    Moreover, employers’ expectations have changed. In the 50s, being a high school dropout wasn’t the huge red flag that it is today.

    Ideally this would go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: The War on Drugs is almost certainly part of the story here, and we should end it. But this chart doesn’t tell us that, because the composition of the group “Black males age 20-24 with less than high school” has changed so dramatically over the past half century that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

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