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Byline: Steven A. Holmes The New York Times

Four years ago, officials here in Marion County decided to make an all-out effort to curb the stubbornly high level of births among unmarried women, a problem that affected a cross-section of the county but was particularly acute for African-Americans.

The health department, public and private social service agencies, the schools, even the local prosecutor's office, all joined in to help. Last year the effort seemed to pay off: 358 fewer babies were born to unmarried African-American women than in 1992, a drop of more than 12 percent, within a 4 percent overall decrease in Marion County.

The county's success in confronting what was a seemingly intractable problem among its African-American population is a small victory but not an isolated one. Without much fanfare, a remarkable and little understood change is occurring among the nation's 33.5 million African-Americans. After a decade of rising drug use, growing violence, disintegrating families and declining measures of health among some segments of their population, things are starting to turn around in many ways.

While there is much debate on whether the gains are temporary, and although wide gulfs in opportunity, incomes and education still exist between African-Americans and whites, signs of improvement for African-Americans abound:

The teen-age birth rate fell by 9 percent in 1995 and has dropped by 17 percent since 1991. Last year, the percentage of babies born out of wedlock fell to 69.5 percent, from 70.4 percent, the first drop in the proportion of African-American children born outside of marriage since 1969.

For the first time since the Census Bureau began keeping track in 1959, the poverty rate fell below 30 percent of all African-Americans in 1995. Median income for households rose by 3.6 percent, far faster than the 2.2 percent increase for white households. (Census data show that many of the strongest gains in earnings are at the bottom, rather than at the top, of the African-American income scale.)

African-Americans are the only group whose inflation-adjusted median income exceeds what it was in 1989, the year before the last recession. In 1989, households headed by married couples earned 79 percent as much as their white counterparts. By 1995, the gap was 87 percent.

The rate at which African-Americans were victims of murder dropped an estimated 17 percent last year, and the average life expectancy for African-American men rose to 65.4 years, the highest since 1984, when crack cocaine and accessibility of weapons like assault rifles began to engulf many communities.

The proportion of young African-American adults, age 25 to 29, who have completed high school has reached that of young white adults.

Verbal scores on Scholastic Assessment Tests and performance on other national tests have been rising faster for African-American students than for whites, but African-American students still score much lower than white students.

``I think that this is a short period of really very substantial and significant gains,'' said Milton Morris, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington group that tracks trends among African-Americans. ``In the heat of the political debates and atmosphere of the last year or so, very few people have been paying serious attention. And yet when you do, you see that by virtually every measure of well-being, African-Americans have been on a significant uptrend during the '90s.''

To be sure, there remain large gaps between African-Americans and whites in educational attainment, infant mortality, income and poverty rates. And sociologists, economists, demographers and civil rights advocates caution that the improvements should not mask continued problems with crime, welfare dependency, discrimination and unemployment that still confront the African-American population in this country.

``I don't know that I can agree with how robust those indicators are in terms of significant gains,'' said Evelyn Moore, the executive director of the National Black Child Development Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington. ``I think there are still very serious challenges facing our children.''

Some scholars also worry that the recent gains may be reversed if the economy falters or, in the short term, by the new welfare law.

``I think there's reason to be concerned about the impact of the welfare bill on a number of these trends, on the poverty rate, on the employment rate,'' said William Julius Wilson, a professor of social policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. ``When the welfare mothers reach their time limit, they will flood a pool that is already filled with a lot of jobless workers.''

Still, in public hospital waiting rooms, in medical clinics and in the offices of social welfare programs around the country, workers point to glimmers of improvement even with poverty and hopelessness.

Jarvis Emerson, the director of the school-based program for the Watts Health Foundation, a nonprofit group in South-Central Los Angeles, said he was beginning to notice gains in the struggle to reduce the soaring rates of out-of-wedlock births in the neighborhood.

``I do think it is a slight decrease or leveling off of births to teen-agers,'' he said. ``With all the programs out there all putting out the same message, there is more of a heightened awareness among the young people of becoming pregnant.''

Diane Sawyer, who works in the GED program at Jefferson State Junior College in Birmingham, said more African-American students were taking the test each year. Lisa Crumley, a supervisor with the Department of Human Resources in Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham, said fewer African-American people had applied to her office to receive welfare benefits in recent months. ``I don't know if that means the quality of life has improved or what,'' Crumley said.

In Camden, N.J., there was a 21.2 percent drop in the number of births to mothers on welfare there from 1992 to 1994, according to Gary Young, a researcher at Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center in Camden, and Ted Goertzel, a sociology professor at Rutgers University.

Scholars who study America's African-American population give much of the credit for the improvements to the country's overall economic prosperity, though they acknowledge that better economic times cannot explain the whole story. A number of economists and sociologists note that in 1995 the African-American unemployment rate tumbled under 10 percent for the first time in 20 years, though it has since inched up above that level.

But while a brighter labor market helps account for African-American gains in income and the drop in poverty rates for African-Americans, many experts cannot fully explain improvements in the out-of-wedlock birth rate or the teen-age pregnancy rate.

Some researchers in New Jersey credit the drop in the out-of-wedlock birth rate among the state's welfare families - about 46 percent of whom are African-American - to its 1992 law denying increased cash benefits to women who have more children. Other states, like Delaware and Indiana, which did not institute policies like New Jersey's until recently, have also reported such decreases.

``Something is going on,'' said Kristin Moore, the executive director of Child Trends, a Washington-based research group. ``Whether it's cultural factors, or a thousand programs finally seeing some success, we don't know.''

A growing sense of material well-being is even changing the makeup of the military. The Pentagon recently found that the number of African-Americans joining the armed forces has fallen by about half since 1990, a steeper decline than for any other group. Defense Department and civilian analysts are unsure of the reason, but one theory is a growing confidence among African-Americans in their ability to succeed in the labor market.

Some economists argue that the closing of the gap between African-Americans and whites is partly explained by surveys that often count most Americans of Latino heritage as whites. Recent increases in the number of Latino immigrants, many of them low income, thus hold down overall white performance.


7 charts

: chart: (1) Black married couples earned in 1989, in 1995

(2) Teen-age birth rate

(3) Median housihold income

(4) Homicide rate

(5) Children born out of wedlock

(6) Life expectancy for men

(7) Poverty rate
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Article Details
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Nov 18, 1996

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