The primary causes of inner-city poverty don't make for good television, nor do they translate to concise political talking points. For this reason, conservative pundits and politicians focus on simple explanations to a riddle that most sociologists have spent their entire lives trying to solve. Sparked by the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, the current unrest in Ferguson is primarily the result of nationwide economic neglect and disinterest toward overwhelmingly African-American areas of the country.
In an attempt to narrow down volumes of research into one emotional charged sound bite, Bill O'Reilly once declared, "If you really want poor black children to have a better shot in life, why not send a three-word text to Jay-Z: 'Knock it off!'" Like O'Reilly, Rep. Paul Ryan showed his concern for the urban poor by claiming, "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working." Echoing the conservative mindset of promoting easy solutions to this complex dilemma, the Heritage Foundation recently confirmed, "Marriage remains America's strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it continues to decline." However, if these statements of sociological awareness are indeed correct, then imagine for a moment that all the single mothers in the country get married tomorrow. Will manufacturing jobs return to the inner cities and would unemployment decrease? While simplifying the plight of urban citizens to the sexual habits of teenage mothers or Beyoncé's latest album appeases the conscience of Republican voters, a closer and more thoughtful examination exposes the real causes of inner-city poverty.
People like Rep. Ryan would benefit from reading the research of the University of Wisconsin's Center for Economic Development. While he's quick to bemoan a "tailspin of culture," the Wisconsin congressman fails to address the economic tailspin of inner-city residents within his home state. According to Marc V. Levine, director for the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin, certain social structures and employment trends affecting black citizens are the primary reason for inner city joblessness:
For black Milwaukee, even before the Great Recession of 2007, there had already been over two decades of a "stealth depression"... Perhaps no statistic better epitomizes the severity of Milwaukee's black male employment crisis: by 2010, barely more than half of African American males in their prime working years were employed, compared to 85 percent almost forty years ago... Thus, as manufacturing employment in Milwaukee declined, or shifted to suburbs that were generally inaccessible to Milwaukee's blacks in a highly segregated metropolis, or as black males were displaced to some extent by other ethnic groups in manufacturing employment, the overall black male employment rate in metro Milwaukee plunged.
According to the statement above, the loss of manufacturing jobs experienced by the black citizens of Milwaukee is a travesty that began long before Beyoncé and other hip-hop stars were even born. Also, if Bill O'Reilly can find data indicating that single mothers caused the "stealth depression" faced by black males in Milwaukee, or that these women caused the close to 50 percent unemployment of black males, then there could be some basis for his constant pontification. Moreover, the University of Wisconsin study goes on to state that, "In metro Milwaukee, all of the region's net job growth since the1980s has occurred in the suburbs, where few working-age black males live and where transportation links between the central city and suburban jobs are poor (and increasingly facing service cutbacks)." Not only have black males suffered high unemployment rates in the nation's largest metropolitan areas, but they also suffer the lowest employment rates in Milwaukee-while the suburbs have seen the all the job growth.
As for the financial strain imposed upon the U.S. by inner-city welfare recipients, the rhetoric blaming these urban centers for immense government debt doesn't correlate with fact. David T. Ellwood, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, explains that "less than 10 percent of welfare recipients live in big-city ghettos, so the bulk of the welfare problem cannot be attributed to the demoralizing effects of these communities." In Elwood's "The origins of "dependency": Choices, confidence, or culture?" the Harvard professor explains that not only do inner cities represent a small portion of the federal welfare budget, but they face extreme levels of social ills:
Ghettos are disastrous places to live. The worst problems of the society are found in very disproportionate numbers there. The ethnographic literature leaves no doubt about the desperation one finds there. Therefore the ghetto, while not a huge part of the welfare problem, is nonetheless a major social problem, and one about which information is sporadic and somewhat inconsistent.
Not only is it unfair to blame single mothers for America's budgetary problems, it's also unrealistic to claim that these women and other inner-city citizens are the cause of their own problems. Also, the racist euphemism of "welfare queen" first uttered by Ronal Reagan is not only offensive; it simply isn't rooted in economic realty.
As illustrated by the depth and scope of research within this area of sociology, serious attempts at investigating inner-city poverty don't sound like an episode of O'Reilly's radio show or a Paul Ryan interview. According to sociologists, there are a variety of factors far more relevant than culture or single parent households when explaining the state of our inner cities. First, the definition of "inner city" states nothing about young women or rap lyrics. Harvard's Michael E. Porter defines inner cities as "core urban areas that are economically depressed" accounting for 7 percent of the U.S. population (within the 100 largest inner cities). These regions of the U.S. have a minority population of 81 percent while also facing an unemployment rate of over 20 percent. The national average currently is 6.2 percent. Second, because of the concentration of an overwhelmingly minority population, high unemployment, and social isolation from more affluent areas, these regions suffer from the effects of segregation. According to Michael B. Teitz and Karen Chapple of the University of California, Berkley, inner-city poverty is a direct consequence of economic segregation:
Segregation itself causes poverty because it increases, by as much as 33 percent, the probability that a young black man does not work (Massey et al., 1991). If segregation were to decrease, so would the poverty rate, the high school dropout rate, and the homicide rate (Galster and Keeney, 1988; Galster, 1991b; Peterson and Krivo, 1993). In fact, recent research has shown that as little as a 1-standard-deviation decrease in segregation would eliminate one-third of the black-white differences in life experiences, such as dropping out of high school, lacking a job, or becoming a single parent (Cutler and Glaeser,1997).
Conservatives should address the statement: "If segregation were to decrease, so would the poverty rate, the high school dropout rate, and the homicide rate." This direct link to poverty -- a link that is far more relevant to unemployment and crime -- is rarely mentioned by radio pundits extolling the virtues of marriage.
Finally, in a 2008 National Institute of Health study, titled "The International Child Poverty Gap: Does Demography Matter?," Patrick Heuveline and Matthew Weinshenker dispel the notion that marriage alone will cure poverty. As stated in their study, "We conclude that high child poverty in the United States is not primarily driven by the prevalence of single mother-headed families." They also explain that although the children of single mother households indeed face higher poverty rates, these economic conditions are the result of a variety of factors and can't simply be blamed on the mother.
Rather than pandering to the passions of conservative voters and television viewers by blaming teenage mothers (who chose life rather than an abortion), Republicans should explain poverty using more words than "single mother" and "culture." The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, a town with 75 percent African-American citizens and double the poverty rate of Missouri, is a testament to the economic segregation faced by black citizens.