Published Online: March 1, 1995

Gap Between White, Black Dropout Rates Has Virtually Closed

African-Americans are no longer significantly more likely than whites to drop out of school, the U.S. Census Bureau said last week.

Since 1970, the annual dropout rate for blacks has declined from 11 percent to 5 percent, virtually closing a 6-percentage-point gap between blacks and whites.

The bureau added, however, that there is still plenty of cause for concern about the well-being of black children, who remain about three times more likely than white children to live in poverty or in a single-parent household.

"It is important, especially for educators, to see the black population in its diversity," said Margaret C. Simms, the director of research programs for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The Washington-based research institution joined the Census Bureau in releasing the findings in two reports last week.

Bureau officials described the reports as offering the most comprehensive statistical portrait of the nation's black population since the 1970's.

One document contains more than 300 pages of data taken from the 1990 U.S. Census. The other, an analysis of federal surveys of about 60,000 households in March of 1993 and 1994, is the bureau's first report on the black population that compares it with whites identified as non-Hispanic.

The analysis of data from the two years projects that, because of immigration from Africa and Latin America and higher black fertility rates, the percentage of the nation's children who are black will grow from the current 16 percent to 20 percent by 2050.

Census Bureau officials said the findings "emphasize the importance of full-time employment, educational attainment, and family composition" in determining the conditions in which these children will live.

Debunking Popular Images

Roderick Harrison, the chief of the bureau's racial-statistics branch, said the new reports' findings contradict several commonly held assumptions about the conditions of black Americans.

On the issue of out-of-wedlock births to young blacks, the Census found about 80 babies for every 1,000 unmarried black teenagers in both 1970 and 1990, "so there really has been no 'explosion' in the percentage," Mr. Harrison said.

The big increase in such births, he noted, has been for white teenagers--from eight babies to 20 babies per 1,000 unmarried teenagers over the same 20-year period.

Still, the proportion of black children who lived only with their mothers nearly doubled, from 29 percent to 54 percent, between 1970 and 1990. The figure for whites more than doubled during that period, yet at 17 percent in 1990 was still far below that of blacks.

About 42 percent of black single-parent families were below the federal poverty line in 1990, compared with 11 percent of black families headed by married couples. Contrary to popular impressions, however, most children of black single parents lived with a parent who was a high school graduate and who worked--often full time, Mr. Harrison said.

"These data on work effort and poverty among black single mothers," Ms. Simms said, "would suggest, at a minimum, that the popular stereotype of these women as heavily reliant on welfare for their income is somewhat distorted."

She added that the statistics showed the economic destiny of young, single black mothers was influenced more by their success or failure in the labor market than by whether they had children. Many single mothers are participants in the labor force but lack the job opportunities they need to improve their economic conditions, she noted.

Education Elevates

Many of the findings highlighted the importance of education in improving the lives of African-Americans.

Blacks appear to be closing the educational gap with whites far faster than they are closing gaps in other areas. Between 1980 and 1990, the proportion of blacks over age 25 with a high school diploma increased from 51 percent to 73 percent.

And nearly half of the black women and about 31 percent of the black men who were professionals in 1990 worked as teachers, librarians, or counselors, with the majority being employed by government.

Although blacks still earned less in 1990 than comparably educated whites--especially blacks who had not gone to college--their incomes increased substantially with education. Black males with a college degree earned on average about twice as much as those without a high school diploma.

Those with less than a high school diploma had a poverty rate of 37 percent, compared with 23 percent of the high school graduates, 7 percent of those with a bachelor's degree, and 5 percent of those with a graduate degree.

"The returns on education are high, and we might expect that that is increasingly the case in the future as jobs become more linked to higher education or more technical education," Ms. Simms said in an interview.

More black women than men were employed in 1990, and black women also made significant educational and economic gains compared with white women. Both black women and men still lagged well behind white men, however, and black men appeared to have made only modest economic gains relative to their white peers.

Copies of the two reports can be obtained from the Census Bureau's customer-service branch at (301) 457-4100.

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