How Crack Cocaine Widened the Black-White Education Gap

(Photo: Valerie Everett)

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) from William N. Evans, Timothy J. Moore, and Craig Garthwaite presents one explanation for the decline in black high-school graduation rates beginning in the 1980s:

We propose the rise of crack cocaine markets as an explanation for the end to the convergence in black-white educational outcomes beginning in the mid-1980s. After constructing a measure to date the arrival of crack markets in cities and states, we show large increases in murder and incarceration rates after these dates. Black high school graduation rates also decline, and we estimate that crack markets accounts for between 40 and 73 percent of the fall in black male high school graduation rates. We argue that the primary mechanism is reduced educational investments in response to decreased returns to schooling.

How did crack cocaine depress schooling returns? “Crack markets had three primary impacts on young black males: an increased probability of being murdered, an increased risk of incarceration, and a potential source of income,” explain the authors. “Each limits the benefits of education.”  In other words, high school looks less attractive when you’re more likely to end up dead or in jail, or earn money.

This finding echoes a passage from Freakonomics:

While crack use was hardly a black-only phenomenon, it hit black neighborhoods much harder than most. The evidence can be seen by measuring the same indicators of societal progress cited above. After decades of decline, black infant mortality began to soar in the 1980s, as did the rate of low-birthweight babies and parent abandonment. The gap between black and white schoolchildren widened. The number of blacks sent to prison tripled. Crack was so dramatically destructive that if its effect is averaged for all black Americans, not just crack users and their families, you will see that the group’s postwar progress was not only stopped cold but was often knocked as much as ten years backward. Black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than by any other single cause since Jim Crow.

And then there was the crime.Within a five-year period, the homicide rate among young urban blacks quadrupled. Suddenly it was just as dangerous to live in parts of Chicago or St. Louis or Los Angeles as it was to live in Bogotá.*

* Sources include: Rebecca Blank, “An Overview of Social and Economic Trends By Race,” in America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, ed. Neil J. Smelser, William Julius Wilson, and Faith Mitchell (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001), pp. 21–40; Douglas V. Almond, Kenneth Y. Chay, and Michael Greenstone, “Civil Rights, the War on Poverty, and Black-White Convergence in Infant Mortality in Mississippi,” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, 2003; Roland G. Fryer Jr., Paul Heaton, Steven D. Levitt, and Kevin Murphy, “The Impact of Crack Cocaine,” University of Chicago working paper, 2005.

Eric M. Jones.

That might be so. My personal hunch is that education depends on the willingness of a whole bunch of students sitting still for a long period of time. Having crack around just makes it that much harder.

But to understand this period, you need to Google: "Wiki: Reagan, Iran-contra, CIA". If Obama were 0.1% as dirty he would be impeached.

I find it hard to believe that the CIA actually supported crack-selling in American black neighborhoods. But then, I find a lot of things hard to believe.


1. How does the effect of crack on black urban neighborhoods compare with the effect of meth on white rural neighborhoods?

2. Sure, if you think you're going to die at any moment, you don't focus on long-term educational attainment. But crack violence is way down now. Are we now seeing improved educational outcomes for black urban males?

Chris L. Robinson

Accepting your premise--how quickly would you expect to see such improved outcomes? No crack today--everyone is in AP Physics next week?

Enter your name...

I think you'd see some improvement within a few years, but it might not be noticeable for 10±2 years. That's when you would start seeing high school students whose school careers had never been affected by crack.


Quote: "We argue that the primary mechanism is reduced educational investments in response to decreased returns to schooling."

You mean there wasn't an increase in use/addiction as a "primary mechanism"?


To be clear, the info presented seems to imply/suggest that (1) increased consumption of crack and/or (2) concomitant increase in addiction WAS NOT A FACTOR. How is that possible?

Shane L

The risk of murder and incarceration, I guess (wrongly?) are associated with the illegality of crack cocaine. Perhaps the high potential profits are too.

So, I wonder can we draw any conclusions about the impact of drug prohibition on the black-white education gap?


What relationship if any is there to the "War on Drugs"? In my view, "War on Drugs" => increased profitability of selling drugs, increased probability of incarceration and increased probability of death as well.


It would be interesting to compare this with the effects of the plain old cocaine market on upper-income white males. Granted that there's not much risk of incarceration when you or your parents can afford good lawyers, but the profits & increased risk of death should be similar.

Pete Wells

The Rate of Death for USE may be similar for Cocaine and Crack since they are based around the same primary ingredient. But Crack is heavily "Stepped On" and contains many additives to lower cost and Increase profit etc...

But Generally this Study isn't insinuating that the Black males are actually USING Crack. It is talking about the Incentive to Graduate high School VS The Probability of being swept up in Gang Violence and Maimed/Killed or Imprisoned or the Potential Income from Selling Crack. Risk of Death From Using crack is secondary because contrary to myth, not that high of a percentage of school aged children use crack. But they do get employment as Mules, Lookouts and Drop off/pickup agents.

So to Compare the Black Ghetto Crack Stereotype to the White Yuppie Coke Stereotype isn't remotely similar. The People Muling and performing lookout duties for the Drugs consumed by Whites are still often Urban Minority youths.

So What Incentive/Fear does a White Child in a Middle class neighborhood have of being killed by a rival gang over coke sales? Or being arrested for Muling coke? Or How much money does a 16 year old white kid anticipate making dealing coke, vs the amount they anticipate by graduating school, becoming a Wal Street banker and simply having the disposable income in their late twenties to afford a coke habit?

Mind you I'm making conjecture based solely on Stereotypes (Verified by the Late Whitney Houston's "Crack is Whack" statement") and don't have demographic data for use rates.

But The glamor of Cocaine my provide an incentive for students to achieve so they can afford a coke habit or learn the skills necessary to socially network with potential clients for a coke distributor. VS The Danger present in the Drug trade on the street level where most of the work is done by impoverished rural and urban people and directed by a few wealthy drug lords.

(I can't remember which volume of Freakanomics investigated why Crack Dealers live with their parents.... but a lot of it is relevant here as well)



The reason for the difference in the education gap between whites and blacks is really one of perceived opportunity cost.

If you are white in the U.S., the probability of living in a more prosperous community than if you are black is higher, and the value of (at least some of) the fruits of education are more apparent. Because of this, the path of education seems more attractive and more accessible to many young whites than blacks. By contrast, the benefits of something more tangible, such as filling a job today selling a product that people want is more attractive if you come from a less prosperous community where educational opportunities seem limited. Because a higher percentage of black populate these poorer communities, this path is more attractive to many blacks than whites. This is not related to any genetics, but simply an issue of how whites and blacks were grouped before a market for crack cocaine developed. If the grouping were reversed, the article would be focusing on how the white community was decimated by the crack cocaine market.

We see something relatively similar in athletics. A disproportionate percent of the population of basketball players is black. Much of this is due to the perceived opportunity cost of putting one’s resources into sports vs. education. The benefits sports appear much more tangible in a less prosperous community when you are young. Learn a few skills and work really hard and you could become wealthy and beloved in your community. Many of the white, or other non-black professional basketball players, come from other relatively poorer countries where there may be a similar perceived opportunity cost of education vs. time spent in athletics.

In both of the cases, the benefits of selling crack, or playing sports, seem much more tangible than pursuing a long and expensive track toward education when the fruits of that education may not be very apparent in your community.



what about meth?
what minority or majority does it help or hurt>?

Lou Dobbs

Poor Whites, The biker gang types, you know...."those ilk".


This is stupid. It isn't cocaine's fault. It could have been grossly addictive Call of Duty. Or meth. Or paralyzing youtube delivered straight to the brain.

What cause incalculable numbers of children to do crack?

Bad parents? An extension of the hippie drug culture? Fantastic marketing by the CIA? WHAT?


Let's be clear about cause and effect here. Crack cocaine did not cause the education gap. The government's prohibition of crack cocaine caused the education gap.

By driving up the price of crack cocaine through prohibition the price rose and thus the profits that could be made from it's sale increased.

The rise in the murder rate is just a function of amount of money you could make selling crack cocaine.

The incarceration issue was exacerbated by the disproportionate sentences given for sales of crack cocaine versus regular cocaine and other drugs.


My questions: Why did this particular drug have such an effect on the black male demographic? Why did they feel this was a better option for their future? Surely this had a precursor ?

Rue the Day

So how come there aren't a whole lot of chicanos and latinos in prison? (They're around 13% of the prison population, compared to around 40% of the population that identifies as black.) And in the last 5 years the risks of being murdered because of drugs in Mexico have gone up, but so has the quality of education. So what is this special vulnerability that blacks seem to have to crack that other races do not have?

lemmy caution

“Crack markets had three primary impacts on young black males: an increased probability of being murdered, an increased risk of incarceration, and a potential source of income,”

These are all effects of drug enforcement rather than the drugs themselves. We would have been better off with legalization if this is true.