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.

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  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  2. nobody.really says:

    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?

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    • Chris L. Robinson says:

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

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      • Enter your name... says:

        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.

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    • schtum says:

      If you look at the graphs on page 40 of the paper, the collapse in black male graduation rates appears to have slowed, and possibly stopped, but we’ll need a few more years of data before we can say definitively whether or not the trend has reversed. The study only goes up to 2005, so the answer may already be out there.

      The paper, and common sense, also suggests that a community’s educational attainment is self-reinforcing. That is, the more educated your parents are, the more educated you are likely to be. This means it’s not simply a matter of crack violence ending for black graduation rates to go back to what they were before crack. Crack basically reset the clock on black male educational attainment to the early 1970s. So, even assuming that things have already started improving, it could be another decade before the black/white education gap matches its previous lows in the late 80s, assuming the gap shrinks at the same rate as it was before crack.

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    • Kyle says:

      Nice questions. Here are a couple of additional thoughts:

      The crack problem has created a feedback loop of missing fathers. Once the first generation of young black men were locked up, there were black neighborhoods severely lacking in male role models. This then led to another generation of mis-led young black men, and the cycle became its own problem. While solving the crack problem — as if it’s that simple — would certainly help push things back on track, I believe it is now only a piece of the puzzle.

      The question about meth in white rural neighborhoods brings up an interesting point. Maybe we will see the same happening with white male role models in future generations. I suspect that if it does not show up so prevelently it will be due to geographical and historical differences. There seem to be areas where black communities are like islands surrounded by a sea of white communities due to rasist real estate practices a few decades ago in which black families were “steered” into certain areas of town in an attempt to keep the nicer areas more white. White families may have more access to family and community resources because they are not also dealing with what I will call the “island effect”.

      If you enjoy watching documentaries, check out Crips and Bloods: Made in America. You can stream it on Netflix or probably even find it online elsewhere to watch for free. It changed my outlook on several social issues.

      ps. Racial steering came up in a college course I took as well, so it seems that the idea is not unique to this film. Thanks for reading this post! I hope it leads to more discussion for or against this viewpoint!

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    • Benjamin David Steele says:

      I was wondering if the impact of crack might be similar that of lead toxicity.

      That points to something missed in the above analyses. Those hurt the most by crack aren’t the crack users and dealers or even the innocent peers of crack users and dealers. The hardest hit would be the crack babies.

      It’s similar with the children who experienced higher rates of lead exposure in the first years of childhood. The worst results for lead polluted communities isn’t seen in a few years but in the following decades. Violent crime rates go up and down about two decades following lead pollution rates going up and down.

      If we use this as a model, we would expect it to take an entirely new generation of kids who didn’t experience the crack epidemic at all. So, it would be a couple of decades following the point when the crack epidemic ended.

      The crack epidemic lasted into the 1990s. That means we should only about now be seeing the beginnings of the long-term shift.

      A complicating factor is that the crack epidemic happened during a time when poor minorities were still dealing with the repurcussions of lead toxicity. There is an overlap between the two factors. Lead toxicity also causes stunted brain development, cognitive impairment, lowered IQ, increases of ADHD, lessened impulse control, etc. All of these things, along with increased aggressive behavior, would alter education attainment levels.

      I wonder if anyone has attempted to tease out these two factors. Anyway, whatever the cause, black high school graduation rates have increased and the average black IQ has increased as well. Something is working.

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  3. richard says:

    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”?

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    • richard says:

      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?

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    • schtum says:

      While crack use/addiction may be correlated with decreased educational attainment, there were never nearly enough crack users for this to explain the decline within the general black population.

      This paper attempts to answer the mystery of why the educational attainment of the majority of blacks, who had no involvement in the crack market, fell throughout the 80s and 90s. Their answer is that the violence surrounding crack turned inner-city neighborhoods into war-zones and made education a low priority for black teenagers.

      From the paper (citing other papers):
      >Anderson (1994, p. 94) found inner-city youth were “uncertain about how long they are going to live and believe they could die violently at any time. They accept this fate.” Such views may alter behavior; studies in the adolescent health literature find that expectations of premature death among school age children are correlated with lower adult socioeconomic status and lower levels of education (Nguyen et al., 2012), worse adult health outcomes (Borowsky et al., 2009), higher adolescent violence (Stoddard et al, 2011) and self destructive behavior (McDade et al. 2011).

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  4. Shane L says:

    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?

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  5. Adam says:

    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.

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  6. James says:

    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.

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    • Pete Wells says:

      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)

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    • drewski says:

      I would suspect the opportunity cost for upper-income white males from cocaine dealing or associating with cocaine dealers is much greater than for the black cohort affected by the crack epidemic.

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  7. JAM says:

    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.

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  8. wle says:

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

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    • Lou Dobbs says:

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

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    • Benjamin David Steele says:

      Meth probably has an entirely different social dynamic since it began under different social conditions. Meth began in and initially spread across rural areas. Poverty in these areas wasn’t as bad as seen in the inner cities. Plus, the racialized War on Drugs wasn’t targeting these populations. On top of that, the rural areas didn’t experience the problems with high rates of heavy metal pollution, specifically lead toxicity. Drugs combined with racism and toxicity creates a destructive brew.

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