Is the criminal justice system the reason half of black students can’t read?

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Is the criminal justice system the reason half of black students can’t read?

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Bay Area housing activist Darrell Owens has a provocative substack post up titled, “Half of Black Students Can Barely Read.”

“In 2021, 47% of Black students in SFUSD that are high school juniors don’t even come close to meeting English-language proficiency,” he writes. “That’s 9% higher than the state average for Black 11th graders — which is also abysmal. That means for every one of two Black students leaving San Francisco high schools, they can’t read for their age.”


Owens then correctly notes that people who can’t read have no chance of landing jobs that pay well enough to afford to live in the Bay Area. All very true. Owens goes on to recount some family history. Even though his father was illiterate, he still valued education for his children very highly, pushing Darrell to succeed academically. Owens seems to accept that there is a strong correlation between having a father in a young boy’s life and that boy succeeding first academically and then professionally.

Owens then notes, “Census 2021 finds that 64% of Black children and 50% of Native American children are growing up in single-parent households — compared to just 24% of white kids and 15% of Asian kids. Single-parent households are one of the greatest indicators of future poverty and substandard education for children.”

Again, all true. He seems to be on to something. But then the wheels fall off.

“And the single-parent rates have an obvious explanation,” he writes. “Black men are the most likely of any group to go to prison, combined with living in an American culture where multi-generational families are discouraged.”

First of all, how does American culture discourage multi-generational families? How does discouraging multi-generational families increase single-parent rates? And when did this discouraging of multi-generational families begin exactly?

Owens is on slightly firmer ground when he identifies incarceration as one reason black women have trouble finding marriage partners. Research does show that higher incarceration rates among black men do make it harder for black women to find husbands.

But Owens faces a timing problem when he tries to make incarceration the driving force behind the fall of the black family. Despite rampant racism and a lack of protections from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, marriage rates for young black men and women were similar to those of white men and women right up into the 1960s.

In the 1940s and 1950s (see Table I.I), young black women were actually more likely to be married than young white women. This began to change in the 1960s when an eight-point gap opened up between white and black women. Then something happened in the 1970s that led to an absolute cratering of the black marriage rate. By the end of the 1970s, just 22% of young black women were married compared to 43% of white women. And the black marriage rate has never recovered.

The proof that incarceration cannot be the culprit for the break up of the black family is that black incarceration rates didn’t take off until the 1980s.

So what did happen?

Well, in 1968, in a case called King v. Smith, the Supreme Court struck down so-called “man in the house” rules. These were admittedly racially enforced policies by states used to disqualify black mothers from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. State welfare workers would visit unmarried mothers’ houses, and if they found a “man in the house,” they would disqualify the mother from benefits on the theory that the man, not the state, should be providing for the mother and her children.

With “man in the house” rules gone, the new test for benefits became marriage. If single mothers wanted to keep their benefits and enjoy a romantic relationship, they had to refuse to marry the men in their lives. King v. Smith essentially forced single mothers to choose between welfare and marriage. And as the welfare state has grown, more and more mothers chose welfare.

It is true that the real value of AFDC cash payments has shrunk over the years as inflation has risen. But the number of other programs working-class families use has exploded: food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 housing, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and Affordable Care Act subsidies are all designed in a way that cut off benefits to single mothers if they want to get married.


Combined, these programs send over $1 trillion in benefits to eligible families every year. That is $1 trillion our federal government is paying single mothers every year not to get married.

That is the main reason so many children can’t read.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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