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Study Finds Marriage, Church Attendance Improve Black Men’s Economic Success


Marriage, church attendance, and military service helped black men be more successful in life, finds a new study. So do more “conventional” factors like education, work status, and minimal contact with law enforcement.

Scholars Ronald Mincy, Wendy Wang, and W. Bradford Wilcox studied what factors promote economic success for black men. The cohort study, which traced the lives black men born from 1957 to 1964, measured which income bracket the men were in by the time they were 50 years-old. The study was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.

Its results are intuitive but still important. They include the following:

  • 70 percent of married black men are in the middle class or higher, compared to only 20 percent of never-married black men or 44 percent of divorced black men.
  • 52 percent of middle or upper-class black men attend religious services multiple times a month.
  • 54 percent of black men with military experience entered the middle or upper income bracket.
  • Lastly, black men who had a “sense of agency,” the belief that they could control their success, were more likely to become middle or upper class.

The panelists started their presentation by saying that they did not want to diminish the presence of structural racism, especially regarding mass incarceration and police brutality. In fact, the study showed that law enforcement confrontations seriously hurt black men’s chances of rising to the middle or upper class. However, the authors said they wanted to push back on the “understandable racial pessimism” in America with hopeful statistics.

Wilcox cited the great increase of the percentage of black men who are middle class and the halving of the percentage of black men who are in poverty.

“Many African-Americans think that poverty and incarceration are endemic to black men. However, most black men will marry, work, and not be arrested,” said Wilcox.

The study spends a lot of time discussing the merits of church attendance, marriage, military service, and sense of agency as important factors to economic success. It states that it focuses on these factors partly because they receive less consideration today.

More than half of black men in the upper two-thirds of the income bracket have married once and attend religious services multiple times a month. These factors point to success largely because they encourage stability in work and education and reduce run-ins with law enforcement.

Church attendance instills a value system, the study notes. Marriage pushes men to provide for their family and work longer. Military service encourages hard work, duty, and perseverance. The military also has a strong culture of marriage because it does not offer benefits to cohabiting sex partners.

Mincey made suggestions for policy after reporting the findings of the study. He urged the government to improve early childhood education, reform the criminal justice system, and bring the U.S. military model to other institutions. He also pushed for the black church to reach out to young black men and for parents to stress marriage before having children.

After the researchers reported on their study, a different panel discussed the results. The panel included Bradley Hardy, a professor of economics at American University, Michelle Singletary, a financial columnist for the Washington Post, and Ian Rowe, the CEO of Public Prep, a public charter school. Singletary opened the panel by joking that one of her followers had tweeted at her, “I feel like this is a pretty obvious thing.”

She replied that this data reaffirms what those who work in American communities already know. As a volunteer in her church and in prisons, she has seen what happens when people lose these values. Singletary noted she applies these principles in her family by making sure her kids to go to church, even after they’ve left the house.

Rowe said that he looked for ways to bring value-driven parenting to Public Prep students who may not have that. Public Prep serves more than 2,000 kids in the south Bronx and lower east Manhattan in tuition-free, single-sex schools that stress college readiness. The schools operate on a lottery system; in one with 200 spots, more than 4,500 families applied.

He said that often educators shy away from talking about topics like abstinence before marriage and going to church, but said it’s “irresponsible” for them to withhold this information from young black men looking to rise. Hardy agreed with his panel members but argued that future success is also connected with family income. Because income affects factors like marriage and sense of agency, he says there should be some safety net for young black men who didn’t enjoy those benefits.

The panel also stressed promoting internship and networking opportunities for black men and argued for creating places where young black Americans can fail safely and thus build resilience.

After opening the panel to questions, a man asked how this data might help ease racial tensions in America. Rowe responded that the life choices that hurt black people are the same life choices that hurt white people. He mentioned the high rates of out-of-wedlock births among white women under the age of 22. By encouraging factors like education, marriage, work, and church attendance, he argued that Americans can find unity.

Singletary added that America needs to do away with an “us versus them” mentality. She said that many white Americans felt disenfranchised before the election and looked to the wrong guy to help them up. She argued that both black and white Americans should see their respective success as collective rather than mutually exclusive.

“When we lift everybody, we all rise,” she closed.

You can read the findings here.