To test your understanding of the nature of economic hardship in America today, one simple question has long been useful. This month’s release of new social and economic data from the Census Bureau’s always fascinating American Community Survey provides fresh, 2014 facts to supply the answer.

Here’s the question: What is the stronger predictor of poverty in the U.S. today — race or family structure?

It’s not a close call.

Nationwide, according to the new census data, black families of all types with children under 18 were more than twice as likely as white families with kids to be statistically poor in 2014 (32.1 percent vs. 14.5 percent).

It’s a large and troubling disparity. But here’s a larger and more troubling one:

Single-mother households with kids, regardless of race, were five times more likely to be poor than married couple families (40.6 percent to 8.2 percent).

When one compares similarly structured families, racial gaps remain in the nationwide poverty rates, but they are much smaller. For example, 10.7 percent of black married-couple families were poor last year, compared with 7 percent of similar white families.

But single parenthood is profoundly associated with poverty across all racial lines.

Consider this: Nationally, in 2014, a white single mother and her kids were three and a half times more likely to be poor than a black married couple with kids (37.2 percent to 10.7 percent).

The apparent costly consequences of family fragmentation, particularly in the black community, where the trend has gone furthest, are not a new story. But the new nationwide data confirm the correlations, as well as confirming that white family structure continues more slowly to follow a similar fragmenting path, seemingly contributing to comparable economic trouble.

Exactly how cause and effect work in these matters — and exactly how public policy could change trends in family structure — are daunting puzzles. But with black households nationwide still only a bit more than half as likely as white households to be headed by a married couple, it’s hard to doubt that this difference has something to do with our frustrating economic disparities.

All that said, there’s another, rather different reason to revisit these issues in the wake of the new census data release. The figures set off renewed alarm here in Minnesota about our state’s above-average racial disparities in many measures of well-being, particularly by showing a sharp and unexplained drop last year in median income among Minnesota’s black population.

Maybe more important, the new data also confirmed that median household income among Minnesota blacks is not only well below that of white Minnesotans, but also below that of blacks nationwide. And this is not a new development.

Minnesota seems unlikely to close the various distressing “gaps” between black and white Minnesotans until it at least understands why the black population here, taken as a whole, seems more troubled by some measures than other black communities around the country.

And one thing one notices, studying the new census data for differences between black Minnesotans and blacks nationwide, is that the linkage here between poverty and family structure seems less powerful.

Black, single-mother households in Minnesota in 2014 were a bit more than twice as likely to be poor compared with black married-couple families (56.9 percent vs. 25 percent). But nationwide, black single moms were well more than four times as likely to be poor (46.1 percent vs. 10.7).

For some reason, black married-couple households in Minnesota do not seem as well insulated against poverty as similar families nationally. Black married-couple households in Minnesota were nearly eight times as likely to be poor as white married couples (25 percent vs. 3.2 percent). Nationally, as noted, black married couples were only about half again as likely to be poor as their white counterparts (10.7 percent vs. 7 percent).

In short, it appears that differences in family structure, while still significant, are a smaller part of the racial-disparities story in Minnesota than elsewhere. Other things about Minnesota’s society, economy, education system, etc. — and/or other things about the black population here — may matter relatively more. Whether that is good news or bad — whether it means the issues here are easier or harder to address — is difficult to know.

One factor affecting statistical disparities that may be easily underestimated is Minnesota’s comparatively large population of recent African immigrants. The new census data counts 95,700 foreign-born blacks in the state, about 30 percent of all black Minnesotans — nearly a quarter of whom entered the U.S. since 2010, and two-thirds of whom entered in the past 15 years.

So the challenges of Minnesota’s black population are in some substantial part the challenges of recent immigrants — which have never been small, regardless of race or ethnicity.

I suppose I am as eager and predisposed as any white Minnesotan to disbelieve that our state’s oversized racial disparities could mean that we are more bigoted, discriminatory and unwelcoming than other Americans. Yet that’s not to deny that injustice plays its sad and persistent part, here as elsewhere.

But the story of racial disparities, here as elsewhere, also has other complications that we need to courageously consider.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.