The Numbers Beyond the Bling


While hiphop’s being celebrated, life on the streets during its 30 years of existence has gotten much tougher. Income inequality in the U.S. began climbing 30 years ago, reversing a nearly 50-year trend. And the prison population has soared. Hardest hit have been African Americans, whose folk culture has made cash registers ring. America is now No. 1 in the percentage of its population in prison and No. 1 in income inequality among industrialized nations. Here are a few statistics:

  • Approximately 1 million African American men under 40 are behind bars. Twelve percent of African American men ages 20 to 34 are behind bars, compared with 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group.
  • Thirteen percent of Black male adults, 1.4 million total, are disenfranchised. In a dozen states, 30 to 40 percent of young Black men will permanently lose the right to vote because of being convicted felons.
  • Fifty percent of New York City’s Black males are unemployed.
  • Black people are 13 percent of drug users, about the same as their percentage of the U.S. population, but 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession are Black, 55 percent of those convicted of drug charges are Black, and 74 percent of those sent to prison are Black.
  • Sale of five grams of crack means a five-year minimum sentence under federal guidelines; it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to warrant the same sentence. Crack is the only drug whose sale as a first offense can trigger a federal mandatory minimum sentence. In 1994, 90 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses were Black, 6 percent were Latino, and fewer than 4 percent were white. Powder cocaine? 30 percent Black, 43 percent Latino, and 26 percent white.
  • In 1986, shortly before federal mandatory minimum sentences were imposed, the average federal crack sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. In 1990, after the guidelines went into effect, the average sentence was 49 percent higher for African Americans than for whites. The average crack defendant is sentenced to 115 months, compared with 77 months for those in powder cocaine cases. The majority of crack users, however, are white.
  • Despite similar or equal rates of illegal drug use during pregnancy, African Americans are 10 times more likely than whites to be reported by social-service agencies for prenatal drug use.
  • People die younger in Harlem than in Bangladesh. The leading causes of death in poor Black neighborhoods are not AIDS, drugs, or homicide. They are “unrelenting stress,” “cardiovascular disease,” “cancer,” and “untreated medical conditions.”
  • In the past 25 years, one-third of public hospitals in the U.S. have closed, mainly in rural areas and inner cities.
  • Wealth disparity is even more pronounced than income disparity. The top 1 percent of all U.S. households own 38 percent of all wealth (property, cash, savings, stock value, and insurance policies—minus mortgage payments, credit card debt, and other debts). Wealth inequality generally fell from 1929 to the mid ’70s. Since then, it’s doubled.
  • Five percent of Americans own 59 percent of all wealth; the top 20 percent own 83 percent of all wealth. The bottom 20 percent have zero wealth. Excluding owner-occupied housing, the inequality is worse: 1 percent of families hold half of all non-home wealth.
  • Ten percent of families own 85 percent of financial securities and 90 percent of all business assets.
  • The average African American family has 60 percent of the income of the average white family. But the average African American family has only 18 percent of the wealth of the average white family.
  • In the U.S., 1 percent of American families own 38 percent of all wealth. In Great Britain, it’s 22 or 23 percent. Until the early ’70s, we had less wealth inequality than Britain.
  • More than 34 million Americans are officially “poor,” a class including nearly 25 percent of all African Americans and more than 20 percent of all Latinos.
  • The minimum wage has fallen by about 35 percent in real terms since its peak in 1968.
  • Overall, American female infants’ life expectancy is 19th in the world; male babies’ is 31st, tied with Brunei. Of the 13 wealthiest countries, the U.S. is last or near the bottom in terms of infant mortality and birth weight.
  • African Americans are 12.2 percent of the population but account for 37 percent of all AIDS cases. Latinos are 11.9 percent of the population but account for 19.2 percent of all AIDS cases. The fastest-growing population of those infected with the AIDS virus is African American women.

  • Sources include Multinational Monitor, Drug Policy Alliance, Edward N. Wolff (Jerome Levy Economics Institute), New England Journal of Medicine, Economic Policy Institute, United for a Fair Economy, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Jonah Goldberg (The Philadelphia Inquirer), The Washington Post, The American Prospect, and Gary Fields (The Wall Street Journal)