Explaining Demographic Disparities Requires a Multifactorial Approach

I received a question from a student several days ago concerning a lecture I gave on Karl Marx and the materialist conception of history. Contextualizing Marx in my approach involves a discussion of those figures who inspired Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, namely Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, as well as the impact of Darwin on sociological thought, especially in the work of Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Darwin and Spencer were contemporaries of Marx. They even lived in the same country (England) and were witnessing and experiencing the same conditions. Although Marx agreed with Darwin on natural history, he rejected the evolutionary approach as useful for understanding human history. Therefore, his theory of historical change and development was much at odds with Spencer’s.

I think readers of Freedom and Reason will benefit from my answer, which follows the question reproduced below (the student’s name withheld) and is only slightly modified for the reader here. The student’s question has in back of it class discussion about social Darwinism as summarized above. Here’s the question (slightly edited to fix punctuation): “I just had a quick question about Thomas Malthus’ argument on systems of inequality. Would being born into a rich family be an example of this, or a continuation of this idea? People born into families with wealth are inherently not equal to those born in impoverished families. Going off that note, do you think he would include racial inequalities into that? Due to the redlining and block busting, African American’s did not have much equity leaving them disproportionately poor, and the effects are still seen today. So, if someone is born into an African American family, they are then at a disadvantage due to the systematic racism that caused inequality in commodities between Whites and African Americans.”

A cartoon capturing the idea of cumulative disadvantage

The logic of Darwinism is that variation in any population is subject to selective pressures in the environment (which includes sexual selection). For natural history (or biological evolution), the variation is gene-based and inherited via the reproductive process shaped by fitness. For social history, the variation is based on social factors. The selective pressure becomes much more complex, however. It is multifactorial. Moreover, applying the logic of natural selection to social history is problematical.

It is true that those born to poor families are more likely to be poor over the life course and in this sense poverty is inherited—not biologically but socially. Intergenerational poverty may therefore be explicable in terms of what we call cumulative disadvantage. This is a matter of social class and property relations. If offspring are allowed to inherit their parent’s wealth, then class inequality will persist. I support inheritance to a degree, since enhancing the life chances of children motivates parents to invest in their own success (this is true whatever the mode of production). At the same time, I believe in taxation and government policy that expands opportunities for all families to succeed. The question is what the appropriate public policy is to make this happen. We are not doing a very good job with this now. 

The picture becomes complicated with race. There are wealthy and high-income black families. Tens of millions of blacks enjoy high status position in American society. There are black academics, capitalists, high-wage workers, managers, professionals, etc. At the same time, there are tens of millions of poor whites. In fact, there are many more times the number of poor whites in the United States than poor blacks. Statistically speaking, i.e., in the abstract, blacks are disproportionately poor compared to whites (there are more whites overall than blacks). But we must avoid perpetuating the myth that whites are rich while blacks are poor.

In my review of explanations for racial disparities, cumulative disadvantage plays some role. Since blacks were at a disadvantaged in the past, the dynamic of inheritance explains some of the grouped differences. But it does not explain all of it. Probably not most of it.

For one thing, the abstract approach risks the ecological fallacy. For example, incomes differences between white and black makes are partly explained by other aggregate trends. For example, the average respective ages of white males and black males is 50-plus versus under-30, with earnings tied to age. Moreover, we are more than five decades removed from systemic privilege based on race. These were abolished in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Other causes of group disparities are 

  • Family breakdown. Not having a father in the home disadvantages children in a myriad of ways. This is true for families of every racial category. However, more than three-quarters of black children grow up without a father in the home, a markedly different pattern than for other racial groups. This problem emerges after the abolition of segregation.
  • Neighborhood disorganization and crime. Disorder is disruptive to economic development. Blacks are drastically overrepresented in serious criminal offending. These problems are exacerbated by family breakdown—and in turn contribute to family breakdown. Family and neighborhood are deeply interconnected.
  • Globalization (offshoring) and mass immigration. Cheap foreign labor drives down wages for all workers, as well as displaces native workers. Because of the split-labor market in low-wage sectors, globalization has disproportionately affected native black and brown labor.
  • The maintenance of a custodial society that pays people not to work and save. Public assistance, while at times necessary, becomes a system of social control in high-poverty areas. Without jobs and income, there is nothing to pass on to children. By idling a segment of the working class, public policy disadvantages future generations in a myriad of ways. Humans learn by example. Idleness and dependency are bad examples.

To address demographic differences, we must therefore look at cultural tradition and public policy in addition to the class and economics question. Unfortunately, political ideology precludes frank discussion of the causes of racial disparities in wealth and income. Progressives lay the blame on racism (indeed, often fallaciously redefining racial disparities as racism itself) and conservatives lay the blame on cultural factors (because they are loathe to blame capitalism). An objective examination of the problem requires a multifactorial approach.

Moreover, a comprehensive account of inequality in the United States requires an explanation that includes the circumstances of whites. I doubt very many people are aware that most poor people in America are white. The media portrays poverty as a black problem, thus distorting the problem of poverty in America. Joe Biden’s famous gaff about poor kids being just as smart as white kids, made in a discussion about black-white differences in poverty, has in back of it the assumption that blacks are poor and whites are not.

Among the solutions to the problem of economic inequality are these: reshoring industries, investment in (real) infrastructure, which includes jobs programs, a radical reorganization of the educational system, which includes training for the reshored industries, and a comprehensive approach to crime reduction.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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