“Any statistics can be extrapolated to the point where they show disaster.”[1] The wisdom of this common sense general principle comes from Thomas Sowell and it is consistently ignored by those using numbers to get government “benefits.”

According to an AP story,[2] Census Bureau analysts tell us that the wealth gaps between whites and minorities is now the largest in a quarter-century; with whites on average having 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of Hispanics. You know that you are being sold a clever pack of goods when statisticians begin to use the word “household” to portray doomsday scenarios of income gaps.

Interestingly, they do offer a sensible explanation based on demographics, although they do not elaborate on it nor emphasize its importance. Age differences between the groups account in great measure for the disparity between predominantly younger minorities and older whites. Age does not explain everything but it is a very important factor to consider. It makes sense that the longer you live and work and acquire, the more wealth you are going to have. Patterns of wealth acquisition show the obvious, older persons have been engaged longer in the labor force and have had the time to acquire more “stuff.” Most people of every race move up in the income ladder as well as the acquired-wealth bracket as time goes by.

Yet, the Census “experts” present the scenario with doomsday overtones. For example, former chief of racial statistics for the Census Bureau, Roderick Harrison:

“I am afraid that this pushes us back to what the Kerner Commission characterized as ‘two societies, separate and unequal,’…The great difference is that the second society has now become both black and Hispanic.”

In view of the facts, shouldn’t we better say that the two societies are of the “old” and the “young”? If given populations are younger more often than not they have acquired less and will become more unstable in times of economic downturns. That is due in great measure to demographic realities. It is to be expected that the ratio differentials will increase during tough times but the coloring perennially given to the finding of disparities is racial and the solutions tend to be geared towards increased government intervention.

The AP article cites Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in income inequality, as saying that “What we need to do is help lower-income people move up.” As we all know, the “we” here means the state and the “move up” means one sort of another of a redistribution of wealth. Such agenda cannot move forward if the reasoning behind the numbers focuses on hard variables and demographic reality. If we read, “Young people fare worse under economic pressure”, that is not going to crank the engines of racial sensitivities that can trigger government action. Only the soft variable of discrimination will do.

There is no doubt that the racialists will use these numbers to advocate for greater government intervention to address the “disparities” caused by oppression and “structural racism.” Beneath the misuse of statistics and the technical use of terms such as “disparate impact” is the vision that unequal results are in themselves proof of discrimination. It is in the nature of causation as deliberate instead of systemic that we can find the reasoning for statistical games.[3] The politics of despair are effective only when we have victims and victimizers. The cause of disparities is racism, end of story.

However, what makes this information an “Aha!” statistic, to use Sowell’s phrase, is the use of household wealth as a measure for real disparities. To compare different artificially gathered groups in terms of households is comparing apples and oranges. Although household composition tends to vary widely within and among so-called “racial” groups, household size is treated as a constant across the board. The ‘median household income’ canon is created by two joint variables: combined income and number of people per household. The latter factor is ignored by those invested in presenting a picture where race is the useful measuring stick. What we see often is that when we correct for changes in household size over time and between groups, the average income per household member increases.

A more sensible comparison would narrow the populations into similar groups such as “two white-parent homes” versus “two black-parent homes.” With over 50% of black households being single-parent ones, you are not comparing like-groups if the other group’s percentage of single-parent homes is more around 5% or 25%. Invariably, when you narrow the populations to like groups, the disparities decrease. The real separate and unequal societies are one with daddy at home and another who threw daddy off the train.[4] Moreover, groups with a greater proportion of married-couple households have substantially greater wealth than two-parent but cohabitating households ($187,102 to $77,093 respectively).[5] Hence, we have discovered another great divide that has nothing to do with race: the married society and the unmarried one.[6]  I think that Robert Rector’s view is more accurate than the racialist artificial vision prevalent in politics, media and culture:

“The U.S. is steadily separating into a two-caste system, with marriage and education as the dividing line. In the high-income third of the population, children are raised by married parents with a college education; in the bottom-income third, children are raised by single parents with a high school degree or less. Single parents now comprise 70 percent of all poor families with children. Last year, government provided over $300 billion in means-tested welfare aid to single parents.”[7]

The groups are artificial not only on household composition but also on ethnic demarcations, as household ethnic identity often depends on subjective self-definition. A racially mixed family may be counted as black or as Hispanic because that is the way they filled the Census question. The entire questionnaire on race and ethnicity used by the Census is a convoluted exercise that offers political gain instead of useful information. Furthermore, the term Hispanic is non-instructive as it groups together a wide variety of ethnic groups with a wide variety of cultural patterns and economic outputs. Puerto Ricans tend to be at the bottom rung of economic output while Cubans tend to be at the top. By mixing widely different groups under a generic label, we are hiding information instead of revealing it.

The numerical proportions falling within certain marital and other social conditions varies from ethnic group to ethnic group and such variables are often ignored by lumping a generic ethnic label with a generic household composition. A Cuban two-parent family may have more wealth than the average white family but it is lumped under a made-up category of “Hispanic.” Even as far back as the 1970s, black husband and wife households outside the South earned as much as similar white households outside the South.[8] Under similar types of households, a black child has the same probability as a white child for living in poverty. Black children are more likely to live in poverty because they are more likely to live in a single-parent home.[9] Being married is a great predictor of economic well-being across ethnic groups and the proportion of married households is different among ethnic groups that are still lumped together.[10] Yet, general designations on ethnicity and an emphasis on race instead of other elements, keeps the discussion centered on racial politics.

Resisting the lure of racialism is difficult for those who know that there is some gold at the end of that road. But, where does it take us as a group of people? What meaningful advantage there is in skin-deep explanations for deeper problems of culture and behavior? As we know, to say these things takes us into a forbidden land, the land of focusing on personal responsibility. It is risky to do so as we are always afraid of the “blaming the victim” accusation accompanying the labeling as racist if you are white and Uncle Tom if you are black.

[1] Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Public Policy (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1995) p. 102.

[2] Hope Yen, “Widest wealth gap between US whites, minorities”, Associated Press (August 26, 2011). Read the story here: http://www.taiwannews.com.tw/etn/news_content.php?id=1663005.

[3] Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed,  pp. 103-105.

[4] Studies reveal that a traditional mother-father arrangement is better for black children for many other reasons. Regrettably, the chances of living in a two-parent home were higher for black children during slavery than  According to the Institute for American Values, ‘Black children of married parents typically receive better parenting, are less delinquent, have fewer behavioral problems, have higher self-esteem, are more likely to delay sexual activity, and have moderately better educational outcomes. Because many of the relevant studies on child outcomes employ comprehensive controls, there is strong reason to believe that these findings reflect more than mere correlations.’[4]

[5] See Michal Grinstein-Weiss, Yeong Hun Yeo, Min Zhan, and Charles Pajarita, “Asset Holding and Net Worth among Households with Children: Differences by Household Type,” Children and Youth Services Review 30 (2008): 62-78. Cited in FamilyFacts.org: http://www.familyfacts.org/briefs/31/family-structure-and-economic-well-being.

[6] An even more difficult situation for black America is that many black women are simply not marrying at all; cohabitation is all there is for them.[6] The only relationships they will ever experience are very short and often tumultuous ones, where long-term commitment is not even expected. There is in those relationships a built-in expectation of sadness and heartache. Cohabitation is not only poor preparation for marriage but it is in itself a stressful and painful arrangement. Yes, cohabitation is not a simple ‘let me have a test ride before I buy the car.’ There is evidence of negative effects associated with cohabitation where higher levels of depression, physical abuse, alcohol-related problems, incidents of infidelity, and lower income levels abound.[6]

[7] Robert Rector, “Married Fathers: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty”, WebMemo,  Heritage Foundation (June 16, 2010) See http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/06/married-fathers-americas-greatest-weapon-against-child-poverty#_ftnref1

[8] Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, p. 56-58.

[9] Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson, & Patrick Fagan, “Understanding Differences in Black & White Poverty Rates”, Heritage Foundation Center for Data Report (May 23, 2001). In 2010, 75% of white, non-Hispanic, 61% of Hispanic, and 35% of black children lived with two married parents according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

[10] For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2010, married black families have a higher income than single parent households even when the wife is not in the labor force. Marriage is such a cultural force that married couples on average have a greater income than cohabitating couples. See Sarah Avellar and Pamela J. Smock, “The Economic Consequences of the Dissolution of Cohabiting Unions,” The Journal of Marriage and Family 67, No. 2 (May 2005): 315-327.