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New Book Brings Home Gains And Losses For African-Americans In Wisconsin

A new book on African-Americans in Wisconsin presents a current profile of the population and how it has changed during the past 25 years. The book now makes an earlier research report more accessible to professors, students and policy-makers.

The two University of Wisconsin sociologists who wrote the book report positive trends in high school achievement and college enrollment for Wisconsin”s African-Americans. In other respects – poverty, unemployment and rate of incarceration in correctional institutions – the data are less encouraging.

The book, “African Americans in Wisconsin: A Statistical Overview,” has been published by Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing. Its co-authors are Doris Slesinger of the UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and E. Howard Grigsby of the UW-Whitewater.

“A book like this not only allows students to understand issues faced by African-Americans, but also allows students the ability to see issues closer to home,” Grigsby said. “I can talk about Washington, D.C., or Chicago or LA, but when I say, ”Let”s talk about Wisconsin,” that brings the issues home to them.”

The authors” research was originally published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison”s Applied Population Laboratory. The book uses data from the 1990 census and from 1995-96 state government agency reports.

“The most important and compelling conclusion is that changes in socioeconomic status haven”t occurred over the last two decades,” said Grigsby. “Contrary to the national trend in this country, the socioeconomic status of African-Americans hasn”t really improved. On the national level, there”s a growing middle class of African-Americans, but that”s not true in Wisconsin,” he said.

Among the discouraging news:

The median income of African-American families in 1989 was $16,674, less than half the median income of all families in the state, $35,082. African-American families were more than four times as likely as all families in Wisconsin to have incomes below the poverty line (38 percent compared with 8 percent).

While the state”s unemployment rate was less than 6 percent in 1990, the rate for African-Americans was three times higher. The unemployment rate for African-Americans doubled between 1970 and 1990, while the unemployment rate for the total population in the state increased only slightly over the same period.

Although the proportion of households headed by women increased for both African-Americans and the total Wisconsin population from 1970 to 1990, 56 percent of African-American families were headed by women in 1990 compared with 13 percent for all state families.

Although African-Americans make up only 5 percent of Wisconsin”s general population, African-American males comprised nearly half the inhabitants of adult correctional institutions in 1995. However, fewer than 2 percent of law enforcement officers and administrators of justice were African-Americans. Grigsby believes that the lack of African-American officers leads to a selection bias, resulting in more African-Americans being charged with crimes and found guilty of them.

The most common offenses of African-American men in Wisconsin prisons were drug violations and armed robbery. The most common offenses for white men were child sexual assault and unarmed burglary. “Drug-related offenses are directly related to socioeconomic status,” Grigsby said. If there are no jobs available and no resources, men will look for other ways to achieve their financial goals, he added. And if African-American men get arrested for drug-related offenses, their socioeconomic status affects their ability to post bail and to get a good attorney, he said.

The change in the state”s economy from an emphasis on manufacturing to an emphasis on high-tech jobs has especially affected African-American men. Ninety-eight percent of African-Americans live in Wisconsin”s large cities, mostly in the state”s southeastern corner. “Many of the jobs that African-American men held in those cities – in manufacturing – are gone,” Grigsby said. He noted that African-American women were still able to get jobs in traditional areas such as clerical fields.

Grigsby sees a growing gender gap in African-Americans in Wisconsin. “Women have a better chance to get into college,” he said. “Their college attendance exceeds males”. They have a better chance in the job market.”

That disparity causes structural problems in the family, he said. “Most people marry someone of their own economic status,” Grigsby said. African-American women who are successfully employed aren”t going to marry someone who is unemployed and has few job skills. “Jobs are related to the ability to form, create and sustain those families,” he said.

On the other hand, Grigsby and Slesinger were encouraged by data on high school achievement. The percentage of African-Americans age 25 or older who had earned high school diplomas increased from 34 percent in 1970 to 61 percent in 1990. Their dropout rate also decreased during this period.

More than 20,000 African-Americans were enrolled in Wisconsin technical colleges and universities in 1994. However, unlike the total population, the percentage of African-Americans graduating from college did not increase.

Slesinger sees reason for encouragement in these education statistics. “African-American men have caught up with women in terms of high school diplomas,” she said. “The percentage of African-Americans entering college and the other post-secondary programs has increased dramatically. However, the number graduating has remained flat. We need to find better ways to help these students be successful once they begin universities and technical colleges.”

Grigsby agrees. “When educational attainment goes up, those other problems go away,” he said. “Traditionally, education is the way out of poverty for African-Americans. I tell students to stay in school because their likelihood of getting into the NBA is low. I tell them to make sacrifices but stay the course.”

“Education is good for people not just to prepare them for jobs, but for their understanding of themselves in relation to the rest of the world,” Grigsby said. “We need to be able to relate critically to the world we live in – a world that is swiftly changing.”

The book”s data predates Wisconsin”s new welfare reform law, but the sociologists don”t expect it to have a major impact on poverty. “Getting people off welfare and into work is a noble idea,” Grigsby said. “But it only makes sense if they can get out of poverty.”

Slesinger agreed. “The number of working poor is growing. Some people work 60 hours a week but are still poor. The data show that one in four African-Americans below the poverty line works full time and most work at least half time. The new law will have its greatest impact on women and their kids. It doesn”t address the problems of most unemployed men.”

The $16 book is available at local bookstores or from Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing (Phone: (800) 428-4466; Fax: (781) 455-1707). The ISBN is 0-536-02015-9.