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Exploding Myths

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Census Bureau officials describe the reports as offering the most comprehensive statistical portrait of the nation's black population since the 1970s. 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 '94, is the bureau's first report comparing the black population with whites identified as non-Hispanic.

Roderick Harrison, chief of the bureau's racial-statistics branch, says the new reports' findings contradict several commonly held assumptions about the conditions of African Americans. On the issue of out-of-wedlock births to young blacks, for example, the bureau 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,'' Harrison says. The big increase in such births, he notes, 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; but at 17 percent in 1990, it was still far below that of blacks.

About 42 percent of black single-parent families were below the poverty line in 1990, compared with 11 percent of black families headed by married couples. But contrary to popular impressions, most children of black single parents lived with a parent who was a high school graduate and worked--often full time. "These data on work effort and poverty among black single mothers,'' Simms says, "would suggest, at a minimum, that the popular stereotype of these women as heavily reliant on welfare for their income is somewhat distorted.''

Many of the bureau's findings show that African Americans appear to be closing the educational gap with whites far faster than they are closing gaps in other areas. Between 1980 and 1990, for example, the proportion of blacks over age 25 with a high school diploma increased from 51 percent to 73 percent.

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.

"The returns on education are high,'' Simms says, "and we might expect that that will be increasingly the case in the future as jobs become more linked to higher education or more technical education.''

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