Nearly 6 in 10 black men reach the middle class or higher by middle age, a nearly 20 percent increase compared to 1960. And the share living in poverty has dropped from 41 percent to 18 percent over the same time period.
But while education, marriage and full-time work get credit for these gains, a new report by the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute finds other factors are also key to financial success for black males — namely military service as young adults, attending church from a young age and having the sense that he has individual agency and the ability to make his own choices about his life.
Youthful run-ins with law enforcement, though, is a major impediment to future success for black males, says the report, called "Black Men Making It in America: The Engines of Economic Success for Black Men in America." The researchers showed that just 28 percent of black males who had contact with the criminal justice system as youngsters became members of the middle class.
The report was released Tuesday in Washington, D.C., at the American Enterprise Institute in a presentation featuring study authors Ronald B. Mincy of Columbia University, IFS research director Wendy R. Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox, scholar with both IFS and AEI. The event included responses to the report by three prominent black panelists: Michelle Singletary, financial columnist for The Washington Post; Bradley Hardy of American University and senior fellow at Brookings Institution, and social entrepreneur Ian Rowe, the CEO of Public Preparatory Network.
Among findings, military service puts more black males in the middle class by the time they reach their 50s (54 percent), compared to 45 percent for those who don't serve. Numbers are similar for young men who attend religious services as youngsters compared to those who don't: 54 vs. 43 percent.
The biggest gap for black males appears to be marriage. Only 20 percent of never-married men and 44 percent of divorced males make the middle class or better, but 70 percent of married men are middle class, the report says.
The researchers also found that 52 percent of those who as young men had a well-developed sense of personal agency reached the middle class or better at age 50, compared to 44 percent of peers who believed fate, chance or outside forces determine their future.
The factors were not independent. A young black man in military service in his 20s was more likely to be married in his 30s. Someone married in his 30s was more likely to be successful in his 50s. Similarly, someone who'd been in the military was more likely to be employed in his 30s, Wang said.
Criminals were less likely to be married and less likely to have jobs.
"This marries the data with what all of us know with our values," said Singletary, who added that "the military launched my husband's father into middle-class status, which helped my husband go to college, which helps my kids."
What works to improve young black lives benefits others, too, said Rowe.
The findings counter the oft-told story of black men in America: "Over the last decade, much of the racial news in American has been sobering if not downright depressing," says the report introduction. "Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston. And, of course, Charlottesville. Writers and scholars like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander have underlined the enduring character of racial inequality and racism in America and the ways in which America's racial divide has exacted a particular kind of toll on black men and black boys."
Less known, they add, is the progress male black Americans have made economically and the forces helping them thrive.
Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youths, researchers tracked a group of men born between 1957 and 1964. They used total family income adjusted for family size and found that 48 percent are at least middle class by age 50, though their share falls short compared to white males of the same age. That economic gap is bigger than when they are in their 30s.
White men are "fairly stable" financially at three points studied, hovering between 75 and 78 percent landing in at least the middle class, including at ages 14 to 22, mid-30s and mid-50s. Black men "experience more upward and downward mobility," the report notes.
Factors that may explain the "higher volatility in black men's economic standing over time" include differences in both work status and health between black men and white men as they age, the report notes, adding that just over half of black men were employed full time compared to 76 percent of white men in the same age group. Meanwhile, health conditions that could limit work were more common in black men than in white men at age 50 and beyond.
Nearly a third of black men in poverty over age 50 had health challenges.
Relatively few black men get a college education, so the military is a hero in improving the finances of many young black men, the report says: "By providing stable work, good health care, housing, and opportunities for advancement, by championing virtues such as duty, responsibility, loyalty, and perseverance, and by pushing racial integration, the U.S. military has served as an important route into the middle class for many black men."
Those military-sparked benefits also make marriage more likely. "Marriage is associated with greater work hours, more strategic work choices, fewer firings, and higher individual and family incomes for men," says the report. "In other words, marriage seems to make men work harder and more strategically, to their personal financial benefit."
Asked why religious attendance as a youth benefits an adult's life, Wilcox said it could arise from being part of a peer social network, or the normative message church provides. It could also be the result of the "code of decency being advanced by the black church," or from spiritual factors of one's faith.
Mincy outlined the report's recommendations. The report calls for expanding the pipeline that leads to higher education and scaling back the pipeline to jails and prisons. Suggestions include funding more public defenders and reducing use of minimum mandatory sentences.
Singletary, who as a volunteer teaches financial principles to inmates, said "what we think about those guys is wrong. … Some are monsters, but there are a lot who if you just give them a chance will benefit our community." They need help to re-acclimate and find jobs, she added.
While pushing young black men to be better, we should push communities to help, Hardy added. Employers have to be wiling to give these young men a chance.
Mincy suggested success of the U.S. military model could be replicated by other institutions, including universities. Internships and career-academy models could expand opportunities "so the military is not the only place where young African-American men are able to move on into a higher status."
The report also suggests using lessons from campaigns that successfully reduced teen pregnancies to reduce nonmarital childbearing and says it would be worthwhile to encourage all young adults "to lock in a committed partnership, especially marriage, before having children."