BLAME THE BLING? Juan Williams takes up the "controversial" line that the real source of contemporary African-American poverty is not racism, but rap music -- specifically, "a culture steeped in bitterness and nihilism" which is "facing African American young people today." I always feel like claims of this sort don't get subjected to any of the sort of calm critical scrutiny that ought to accompany a thesis about serious big picture social trends. I mean, don't white kids listen to hip-hop, too? And isn't there a lot of bitterness and nihilism in the segments of teen popular culture that we don't associate with black people? Indeed, isn't bitterness and nihilism the default state for teens?

More to the point, what exactly is the hip-hop theory supposed to explain? The black-white poverty gap long predates the release of "Rapper's Delight." Is it the case that the gap has been growing during the hip-hop era? Well, no. Here's a historical table. The black child poverty rate was 33.6 percent in 2004, 33.2 in 1999, 43.8 in 1994, 43.7 in 1989, 46.6 in 1984, and 41.2 in 1979. For non-Hispanic whites, the series goes 10.5, 9.4, 12.5, 11.5, 13.7, and 10.1. The gap is, in other words, getting somewhat narrower rather than growing.

So should people be encouraged to work hard and stay in school? Obviously they should. But realistically if you look at yonder chart (PDF), poverty goes up when the economy does poorly and down when it goes well. Poverty goes down when the federal government is strongly committed to poverty-reduction, and goes up when it isn't. It's not an incredibly mysterious picture.

--Matthew Yglesias

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