Kausfiles Special

The Ending of the Black Underclass, Part XVIII

According to tabulations obtained exclusively by kausfiles from sources deep within the federal government, the percentage of the African-American population on welfare is at its lowest level in at least 15 years, and probably its lowest level since the early 1970s. This “dependency rate” (or “recipiency rate,” for the PC-inclined) was calculated by comparing the number of welfare cases with the number of adults (age 15-49) in the population. Here are the numbers for non-Hispanic blacks:

Year           Dependency rate* 


You get the picture. Welfare dependency among blacks remained at a high level until 1995, the year before the welfare system was radically reformed (when there was already a lot of talk of reform in the air). Since then, the African-American dependency rate has plummeted 34 percent. There’s no reason to think the drop stopped in 1999.

Is the black dependency rate the lowest ever? Probably not, for the simple reason that before the “welfare explosion” of the late 1960s, many poor blacks were blocked or discouraged from receiving welfare. It’s hard to know for sure–due to a change in record-keeping practices, there aren’t strictly comparable numbers from before 1983. But a very crude back-of-envelope calculation suggests that the black dependency rate in 1967 was somewhere around 5 percent, and that it then more than doubled, to around 12 percent, by 1973, when the welfare caseload stabilized. That would make the current rate the lowest since the early ‘70s or even the late ‘60s.

Politically sensitive officials, including those in the Clinton administration, may not want to publicize these encouraging statistics, because they also show that the black dependency rate, even at 7 percent, remains far higher than the white rate (which is 1.1 percent). But so what? The black dependency rate has always been much higher than the white rate, at least since the welfare explosion. This is one reason why the “underclass,” as measured by scholars such as William Julius Wilson, Isabel Sawhill, and Ron Mincy, has been a majority-black problem.

And that’s the point. The existence of a largely black, welfare-dependent “underclass”–and the way it reinforces stereotypes about all blacks and poisons race relations–has been America’s greatest social problem. What the plunging dependency rate suggests is that this problem may be on its way to being radically ameliorated, if not solved. A smaller portion of blacks on welfare means not only a smaller underclass; it means more working and middle-class role models. It means there is a much greater chance that the latter two groups will eventually swamp and assimilate the former. (Might the drop in black dependency just record people who are being pushed off welfare into poverty? It could, but it almost certainly doesn’t. Black poverty and black child poverty have been falling. Click here for more on this issue.)

Can a favorable “tipping point” be far away? Things seem to be finally getting better very fast.

[*Methodological fine print: “Welfare” means Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or its successor program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). For various technical reasons, it is difficult to exactly compare the number of people (including children) on welfare with the total African-American population (including children) over time. As noted, the table above instead compares the number of African-American welfare “cases” with the adult population. Typically there is only one adult per welfare “case,” but not always–for example, under some conditions, two-parent families qualify for welfare. There may be also be one, or two, or more children in a single “case.” The “case” numbers also include cases in which technically only a child receives welfare–although typically there is also an adult in the household.]