Coates objects to the cliché that blacks have to be “twice as good.” It’s closer to the truth that they, like all Americans, are in a much better position to succeed if they honor certain basic norms: graduate from high school; get a full-time job; don’t have a child before age 21 and get married before childbearing. Among the people who do these things, according to the research of Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, about 75 percent attain the middle class, broadly defined.
Conservatives like Rick Santorum have taken to using this factoid as definitive proof that structural factors behind poverty don’t matter, that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and government action to help marginalized people is unnecessary. It does not prove that at all. If anything, it’s a useful reminder of the fact that poverty is mainly a problem of systemic failure, not personal failure.
The stat comes from a 2009 book by Haskins and Sawhill called Creating an Opportunity Society. Haskins and Sawhill analyzed income data from 2007 and broke down households based on whether the head of household followed three norms:
- They work full-time.
- They graduated high school.
- They waited until they were married and at least 21 to have a child.
They found that only 2 percent of persons in families that followed all three norms were poor, whereas 76 percent of persons in families that followed none were poor, and 73.8 percent of those who followed all three were at least middle-class: