Ronald Mincy's latest study is making headlines: plight deepens for black men; young black men experiencing terrible times. And at a time when America is said to be divided along political and cultural lines, everyone wants to know where Mincy's allegiance lies: is he liberal or conservative? But Mincy, a trained economist and the Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice at Columbia's School of Social Work, can't be pinned down that easily.
A perusal of Mincy's work during his 30-year career shows that, rather than adhering to any one political doctrine, he follows the facts -- which more often than not lead him back to the one element he contends should be at the center of any social welfare policy: jobs. And jobs are particularly important to the increasing number of black males being left behind in American society.
"Labor markets have turned their backs on low-skilled workers, especially men," he laments. And, in his view, the low-wage jobs often taken by immigrant men are not a viable alternative for African American men. "The data don't indicate that black men and immigrant men compete for the same jobs, except maybe in construction and in California. Immigrant men take low-wage jobs that black males wouldn't take anyway because [black families] are accustomed to a higher standard of living, bolstered by their greater access to welfare. They can't live with dignity off of the low wages those jobs offer."
According to Mincy's study -- detailed in his new book, Black Males Left Behind (Urban Institute, 2006) -- the broad economic gains of the 1990s failed to reach black men, especially in urban areas. They lag at the bottom of nearly every measure of social engagement that sociologists measure.
Undereducated and without jobs that pay meaningful wages, many black men are unable to support their families, which they often abandon. Their children grow up without the benefit of a father, thus, at least for this demographic, continuing the cycle of poverty.
Reflecting on his own life, which took him from an impoverished childhood in the South Bronx into the world of the Ivy League, Mincy says that he "wanted to study economics because I was really interested in the role men play as generators of poverty and as casualties of poverty."
Mincy and his two brothers were raised by their single mother in the Patterson public housing project in the South Bronx, without any help from their father. At that time, Mincy says, "the South Bronx was a poster child for urban poverty." This early environment stoked his curiosity about the cycle of poverty. "Most of my friends did not have fathers present in their lives either," he says.
By the early 1990s, the Harvard- and MIT-trained economist was concerned about the downward trend he was seeing for young African American men despite the nation's booming economy. To him, the reason black men were falling behind was obvious: programs to assist low-income men were few and far between, and those precious few were losing their funding. "Welfare benefits and data are tracked and administered by following mothers, not fathers," he explains.
So Mincy conceived a study of the impact of what he termed "fragile families" on child development. It was a defining moment in his career and in social policy research. The study was the first ever to track how the employment habits of both unmarried parents affected the development of their children.
Fragile families are families where mothers and fathers are unmarried but are attempting to raise and support their children together. Statistically, these families are much more likely to be poor than families with married parents. "Part of the mix of things we do for poor people should be to help those who want to marry, marry, given its impact," he advises. "Parents who marry are better off -- and so are their children."
According to Mincy, one third of all American children (70 percent of African American children) are born to unmarried parents. Yet 80 percent of the parents in the study thought their chances of marrying were between 50/50 and certainty at the time their child was born. "But if they want to marry, why don't they?" he questions. The main reason very few marry (only 15 percent do so within 12 months), he says, is relationship quality, measured by factors such as the ability to compromise during disagreements and the man's support for the woman during pregnancy. Race also matters, as do employment and culture.
African American women are unlikely to marry unemployed men, he notes. Thus the formula for black men's success requires jobs that pay a living wage.
Mincy sees light at the end of the tunnel, however. "The City University of New York is launching an initiative to reach back to elementary schools and increase the number of black male students qualified to enter [college]. It also will try to increase the number who are employed."
And projects like Columbia's planned Manhattanville expansion offer an important opportunity. "I hope Columbia joins the effort," he says. "Our expansion into Manhattanville can provide jobs that will help a lot of people turn their lives around."
Over time, and with the right educational and social policies in place, the progress made with low-income women can be duplicated, he believes. "We need to do the same thing for less-skilled men that we do for less-skilled women: require and enable them to work and support their families," he says.