A reader sends a link to these fascinating maps that appeared on Andrew Sullivan’s site today. I highly recommend you go see them. Andrew posts them under the title “The South Vs. Social Mobility.” The first map shows how life in the South is especially bad for social mobility, in that many fewer people born poor rise out of it, compared to the poor in the rest of the nation. The second map correlates the information on the first map to race. Turns out that more or less the same areas that are worst for social mobility also have the highest concentration of black people — and they are in the South.

Noting that on the race map, the highest concentrations of blacks are designated by red, one of Andrew’s readers writes:

Interestingly, the white south – Appalachia, Cajun Country and the area around the Gulf, the Florida Panhandle – is not red at all.

To me, it says less about Red State politics (though it still does, indirectly) than it does say about how much harder it is for poor people of color to have a chance to succeed. The Red States seem pretty good about taking care of their white, GOP brethren, even the poor ones – that’s why you’ll note Utah is so mobile.

This strikes me as really unfair and misleading, as if this were nothing but a racist Southern Republican plot to keep black people poor.

As usual, I wonder about the cultural aspect of this. As I’ve written about many times before, there is an aspect of impoverished black culture — rural and urban — that all but guarantees future generations will live in poverty. There is the very high rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing, which has been a fact for a very long time. Take a look at this map, which comes from the U.S. Goverment:


You will notice that there is significant overlap between the states with the least social mobility, the highest black populations, and the highest rate of teen childbearing. One important caveat: the Hispanic rate of teen childbearing is also very high, which is why you see the Southwest at the top of these charts, like the South. Texas also has a significant black population, as this map of Andrew’s shows.

Earlier this year, the US Census Bureau published state data linking poverty with the out-of-wedlock birth rate. As Robert Rector pointed out, it is a mistake to confuse “teen birth rate” with “out-of-wedlock birth rate.” From his report:



Rector adds:

In 2008, 1.72 million children were born outside of marriage in the United States. Most of these births occurred to women who will have the hardest time going it alone as parents: young adult women with a high school degree or less. As Chart 5 shows, nearly two-thirds of births to women who were high school dropouts occurred outside of marriage. Among women who had only a high school degree, well over half of all births were out of wedlock. By contrast, among women with at least a college degree, only 8 percent of births were out of wedlock, and 92 percent of births occurred to married couples. 

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.


The rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing and the increase in single parenthood are major causes of high levels of child poverty. Since the early 1960s, single-parent families have roughly tripled as a share of all families with children. As noted, in the U.S. in 2009, single parents were nearly six times more likely to be poor than were married couples.

Not surprisingly, single-parent families make up the overwhelming majority of all poor families with children in the U.S. Overall, single-parent families comprise one-third of all families with children, but as Chart 6 shows, 71 percent of poor families with children are headed by single parents. By contrast, 73 percent of all non-poor families with children are headed by married couples.

The point is, once a culture of having children out of wedlock, without a man in the home, becomes entrenched, it is very hard for people who accept that ethic to rise out of poverty. What’s more, this affects black Americans vastly more than it does white Americans. This chart, again, is from Rector’s analysis:



The out-of-wedlock childbearing rate can’t be the only explanation for the lack of black social mobility in the South, but it is a very important one, given how the South has such a high concentration of African-Americans, and how disproportionately this phenomenon affects them, versus other populations. Anecdotally, I have heard from teachers who struggle with an attitude among a large number of their students that is hostile to educational achievement — and that stigmatizes black students who do work hard and get good grades (the “acting white” phenomenon, which the black scholar John McWhorter discusses at length in his rave review of Stuart Buck’s important book on the subject). If getting an education is almost the only way out of poverty in post-industrial America, and many blacks who want to do well in school have to struggle with peers accusing them of being sellouts because of it, that puts tremendous social pressure on them to conform.

Look, I’m not saying that I have the answer to why social mobility is so much less in the South, and why that appears to be a problem highly correlated with race. Racism obviously must play some factor, if only historically (e.g., Buck shows that the “acting white” phenomenon didn’t exist until schools were integrated, and black students faced white hostility over their presence). Still, it is unjust and inaccurate to assume that this problem is all, or mostly, about white Southern conservatives keeping black people down. Not that that will stop many people from doing so, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.