Black Students Suffer from Stress at Home, Not Lead Poisoning

In the New York Times, Paul Morgan and George Farkas present their research findings that demonstrate that, after risk factors are adjusted for, black children are under-represented in special-education programs. I applaud their efforts to gain a better understanding of special-education placements, but I question their comments on lead poisoning. Morgan and Farkas write that “thirty-six percent of inner-city black children have elevated levels of lead in their blood.” They neglect to mention that this figure comes from data collected by the Centers for Disease Control more than 20 years ago. Since the mid-1990s, the national lead-poisoning rate has dropped precipitously: from 7.6 percent in 1997 to 0.9 in 2007, and then to 0.5 percent in 2013. Over this period, the rate in New York City dropped from over 3.5 percent to 0.3 percent.

New research has led some child advocates to change the lead-poisoning threshold from 10 to 5 parts per deciliter of blood. However, even with this more stringent criterion, inner-city lead-poisoning levels are dramatically lower. Using this alternative measure, Terrence McCoy cited statistics from 2009 and 2013. They showed that in Freddie Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood, “more than 3 percent of children younger than 6 had possibly dangerous levels of lead in their blood, more than double the figure for the entire city.” Thus, while lead poisoning continues to adversely affect disadvantaged black children disproportionately, these dramatically reduced rates cannot begin to explain why so many black children currently have school problems, as indicated by, for example, the rate at which they are placed in special education.

A more powerful environmental explanation points to household stress. Studies indicate that while housing problems are a significant stress for poor but not middle-class children, the largest gaps between the two groups are with respect to family violence and turmoil. Thomas Boyce provides evidence of the link between stress at home and behavioral problems in school.

Freddie Gray was a victim of lead poisoning, yes, but it is no longer a significant cause of the persistent behavior and academic deficits that continue to plague black children.

As I have argued elsewhere, I believe that, on average, black children experience higher levels of violence and family turmoil than do white children, much of it the consequences of the dramatically higher jobless rate among black men. Derek Neil and Armin Rick found that in 2010, among those aged 25 to 29, the employment rate was 78.8 percent for white men but only 57.1 percent for black men. Within this age group, among those without a high-school degree, 24.9 percent of black men compared with 67.4 percent of white men were employed. Indeed, more of these less-educated black men are in prison than in paid employment.

It is this joblessness that explains why most black single mothers who have more than one child have them with different partners. This multi-partner fertility in turn causes family turmoil as many children experience a “father-go-round.” And these serial “fathers” bring their frustrations into the home. National data indicate that when a single mother is living with a man who is not the father of all her children, the rate of child maltreatment triples; and this is especially the case with black households. In addition, there is preliminary evidence that joblessness also increases violence between intimate partners.

Yes, Freddie Gray was a victim of lead poisoning, but it is no longer a significant cause of the persistent behavior and academic deficits that continue to plague black children, particularly boys. These deficits reinforce stereotypes that weaken job prospects, creating massive joblessness among less-educated black men. And these frustrations weaken family relationships, creating an environment that risks producing another generation of jobless black men.

It is crucial to create pathways to direct employment for young black men. Certificate programs offered by the for-profit sector, for example, should be encouraged, and I applaud New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s new Center for Youth Employment initiative, which moves in this direction. Only if we have a more honest assessment of the home environment that black boys experience can we begin to make meaningful changes in their situations and in disadvantaged black communities.


The Latest

Colin Powell, R.I.P.

Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.