SOCIAL INDICATORS 2006
I have avoided giving extensive analysis of subgroups within American culture during this series on social indicators. I have been focused on trends at the most aggregate level. However, one measure of quality of life for the whole society is the degree to which each person has an opportunity for a quality of life similar to other groups within the culture. Because of their unique place in American history, African-Americans have been subjected to the greatest oppression of any ethnic group within our culture. Their status with regard to the privileged status of White Americans can serve as a measure of how well we are doing in achieving equal opportunity for a high quality of life.
The first social indicators I mentioned in this series were life expectancy and the infant mortality rate. These rates are two of the best indicators for overall quality of life. Life Expectancy tells about the chances of living a long life. The infant mortality rate (number of deaths before age 1 per 1,000 births) tells about the most vulnerable among us and how well our cultural infrastructure meets their needs.
So how are African-Americans fairing compared to White Americans?
Life expectancy for African-Americans as a percentage of life expectancy for White Americans increased for several years up to the mid-1980s. It appeared to be on a trajectory to equal that of White Americans by early in this century. However, the rate took a noticeable dive in the late 1980s and then stayed flat for the first years of the 1990s. Since that time the gap has been closing again at a rate similar to the rate before 1984.
What happened? My suspicion is that rate declined due to the devastating crack cocaine epidemic that hit many Black communities in the late 1980s. Murder rates and drug related deaths soared for young African-Americans. (See Crime (Part 1) ) I don’t think that this was the only cause but I suspect it was a strong contributor.
The African-American infant mortality rate declined from 32.6 in 1970 to 14.0 in 2003. However, the rate for White Americans declined even more precipitously. The rate of infant deaths for African-Americans compared to White Americans was less the 2 to 1 in 1970, but by 2001 the ratio for the rates was 2.5 to 1. There are likely several reasons for this including a disparity in the quality of healthcare received. The disparity seems to have leveled out in 1992 and has varied within a narrow range ever since. This trend also correlates well with the increasing ratio of African-American single women having children versus White single women having children over the same time period.
Another important indicator of equality is degree of poverty. How have African-Americans faired compared to White Americans?
Some estimates place African-American poverty rates at higher than 80% prior to World War II. By 1975, the rate had dropped to 31.3%. The ratio of the African-American rate to the rate for White Americans was 3.5 to 1 in 1975. Except for the minor setback in the 1980s (drug epidemic?) the ratio has slowly declined to a rate that is less than 2.5 to 1.
Directly tied to economic viability is education.
The rate of high school graduation is nearly approaching the rate for White Americans. The rate of college completion is also improving at a little slower rate. It was just under 40% the rate for White Americans in 1966 and is now over 60% of that rate. As education is one of the most important components to economic advancement, this gives some hope for gains in quality of life for African-Americans in the future.
Possibly the most disturbing of all statistics is the ratio of black men ages 18-24 in college versus being in prison. For White males age 18-24 there are 28 men in college for every 1 in prison. For African-American men ages 18-24, the ratio is 2.6 to 1. (See More Brothers in Prison Than In College?) I don't know how this compares historically but it surely indicates that that we have a long road to travel toward equality.
There has been significant improvement in the absolute quality of life for African-Americans when we look at group measures over time. However, when we look at the quality of life relative to White Americans we get a mixed picture of modest improvement. The quality of life for African Americans relative to White Americans is improving but a disappointingly slow rate.