In a blog post yesterday, I observed that, while blacks are more prone to drop out from high school than whites statewide, in some 30 rural Virginia localities, blacks showed a lower dropout rate. In Nottoway County, the drop-out gap between blacks and whites was 14 percentage points for the class of 2012 — in favor of blacks. In next-door Lunenburg, the gap was almost 20 points. I speculated that perhaps the breakdown of white, working class culture highlighted by Charles Murray in “Coming Apart” might have played a role.
An interesting conversation ensued in the comments section. Don Rippert hypothesized that perhaps the difference could be attributed to different levels of religiosity between blacks and whites. If blacks attended church more frequently, perhaps they were more likely to hew to traditional values and, consequently, suffer lower rates of social dysfunction such as divorce, teen pregnancy and other problems that would induce students to drop out of school.
Among the data points he presented in support of his conjecture is the fact that there are 59 churches serving the 5,000 households in Lunenberg County, an average of 84 households per church. That compares to, say, suburban Henrico County, where 140 churches serve 108,000 households, an average of 772 households per church. Furthermore, he cited Carsey Institute data showing the religiosity of America’s “black belt,” where blacks and whites are roughly equal in numbers, are significantly higher than for Appalachia, which is overwhelmingly white.
Rippert’s data is suggestive but it’s too impressionistic to persuade anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced that Nottoway/Lunenburg blacks are more religious than their white neighbors. What we can do, however, is test the idea that dropout rates are correlated with metrics of socially dysfunctional behaviors — out-of-wedlock births and teen pregnancies — that might be influenced by religious views.
Statewide, 28% of all white births in 2009 were non-marital while 67% of all black births were. Here is the breakdown by locality. And here are the numbers for Nottoway and Lunenburg:
The rates were elevated for both races, but the rate for blacks was two to three times higher than for whites. If out-of-wedlock births has any bearing out dropout rates in Lunenburg and Nottoway, I can’t see it.
How about teenage births then? It’s teen births that disrupt a girl’s prospects for completing high school, not a non-marital birth later in life. Statewide, the rate of live births is 11.8 per 1,000 females among whites and 22.4% among blacks. Here are the numbers for Nottoway and Lunenburg:
Whatever accounts for dropouts in Lunenburg and Nottoway, it’s not affecting girls as much as boys. In Lunenburg, 15.8% of girls dropped out compared to 25.4% of boys. The gap is 3.1 percentage points in Nottoway. Perhaps we need to be comparing juvenile male arrest rates, but I can’t find that data.
On the other hand, maybe there are non-sociological factors at work. Maybe there are dynamic principals and school administrators who inspire black high school students to achieve. Maybe the two counties have dropout prevention programs aimed at black students that I’m not aware of.
Or maybe I’m just chasing a will ‘o the wisp. Perhaps, because the graduating classes of both school systems are small, we’re dealing with small numbers, which make for high rates of variability from year to year. Perhaps the drop-out rates for the classes of 2012 are a fluke and I need to find better things to do with my time.