A remarkable study highlights a barely known exception to the generally accepted truism that black Americans’ poverty and unemployment rates are considerably higher than those of whites.
Idaho is the only state in the nation where blacks earn more than whites, and their income also tops that of all other races and ethnic groups, according to the study “Idaho Blacks: Quiet Economic Triumph of Enduring Champions.”
As the highest-earning racial group in Idaho, blacks earn 106% of the mean weekly earnings of whites and show an even higher earnings differential from other races and ethnic groups, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department.
The black experience in Idaho clearly differs from the national narrative. Compare the astounding 30% earnings differential for blacks compared with elsewhere in the United States, where blacks overall earn only three-quarters of whites’ income.
Such achievement is based upon several factors that are unusual to some extent, according to the preliminary research by authors Rama Malladi, an associate professor of finance at California State University, and Phillip Thompson, a fifth-generation Idahoan who is director of the Idaho Black History Museum.
Long-term trends, their study says, include “fewer barriers to land ownership, smaller populations, well-knit communities, men’s involvement in the family, and a relatively less hostile [social and regulatory] environment than prevailed in other states.”
“Blacks have been part of Idaho’s history from the inception of the current state,” Malladi and Thompson observe, citing historical data from as early as 1870.
Blacks began emigrating to Idaho in the 1840s as trappers and fur traders, in the 1860s and 1870s as miners, homesteaders, and cowboys, and later as urban-based tradesmen. In the last quarter of the 19th century, blacks arrived as scouts, guides, cavalrymen, pony express riders, cooks, veterinarians, railroad workers, missionaries, and circuit riders.
Due in part to rising violence and racism in the South in the 20th century, and recognizing economic opportunities caused by a need for workers, Idaho’s black population continued to expand. Recognizing the potential for upward mobility in a free market system, the study says, the black population “has grown in double-digit percentages in all decades except during the era of the Great Depression and the world wars.”
A Smaller Black Population
By 2020, Idaho’s black population was growing at a significantly faster rate (262 times) than both the state’s overall population (123 times) and the white population (142 times).
However, Idaho residents who are black or African American make up only about 1% of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 2022 population estimate. (Multiracial individuals constitute a separate category.)
This small population base, or “micro-minority,” is a primary factor cited by the study’s authors as benefiting economic opportunities for Idaho blacks. Nationally, blacks on average make up 13.6% of the population.
In the five states with the lowest income disparity between whites and blacks, the study notes, blacks represent under 2% of the working-age population. Like Idaho, the four other states are in the Pacific Northwest: Hawaii, Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon.
Documentation from the 19th century shows that blacks already were able to own farms and homes in Idaho, buttressing the thesis that blacks there experienced fewer barriers to land ownership than they would in many other states. As the authors point out, at the end of the 19th century, farmland ownership by Idaho blacks “ranked as the third highest in the country.”
Blacks who migrated to Idaho took full advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act, which provided that any adult citizen (including freed slaves) who never had borne arms against the government could claim 160 acres of government land, as long as they lived on and improved that land.
Black migrants also were able to gain equal access to educational opportunities for their children. Idaho integrated its schools in 1871, a full 83 years before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling integrated the nation’s public school systems. This achievement occurred only seven years after Idaho was founded as a free territory.
Workforce Participation, Social Stability
Interestingly, the study’s authors point out, workforce participation rates for blacks at the end of the 19th century were “much greater than the total population.” Several blacks who moved to Idaho were major entrepreneurs, as illustrated by the case of Lewis Walker.
Upon his arrival in Silver City from the former slave state of Maryland, Walker began purchasing property, constructing buildings, and creating ownership in small business ventures such as shoe stores, barber shops, and saloons. In 1913, when Walker was 75, the local press recognized him as potentially the oldest Idaho settler.
This capitalist ethic, which continued to this day, is a factor in the economic achievement of black Idahoans.
Unlike many other states, Idaho’s societal climate of self-reliance and its embrace of economic and personal freedom, plus respect for those who work hard to achieve the American dream, made it a place where a tight-knit but integrated black community could flourish. A neutral playing field permitted blacks to rise on their own merit.
Black Idahoans’ focus on capitalism and individual initiative, independent of government, also is illustrated by the fact that they didn’t focus on the military or other sectors of government for employment. The study notes that their military participation rate was “the lowest” among all states, as they focused instead on entrepreneurship.
Also significant were several cultural factors, the authors observe, writing that “the family as an institution has been strong in Idaho.”
The social stability enjoyed by black families, in turn, provided a stable environment, increasing household income for many blacks and reflecting Idaho’s overall financial stability. In 2020, for example, Idaho ranked first among states for creditworthiness and third for low unemployment. It was one of the least regulated states in the union.
Moreover, Idaho’s blacks didn’t have the same concerns about personal safety. Mob lynching provides a classic example. Across America between 1882 and 1946, more than two and a half times as many blacks were lynched as whites. In Idaho, the record shows 20 whites were lynched, but no blacks.
Interestingly, men still dominate the workforce within Idaho’s black community, although the nation as a whole experienced a different scenario. And the increase in women’s labor force participation in the state’s black community in no way parallels the dramatic nationwide increase in female workers in the second half of the 20th century.
Women now constitute more than 50% of America’s workforce, and their participation in it sharply increased from 1960 to 1980. By contrast, women made up only 36% of Idaho’s black workforce in 1960; that share increased only slightly, to 37%, in 2018.
Religion and Male Role Models
A strong element of cohesiveness in Idaho’s black community was the early establishment of churches and the internalization of traditional religious values.
After many blacks “migrated to a town or city,” the study’s authors observe, “the first community institution they established was usually a church.” This emphasis on believing in God and observing religious practices is consistent with Idaho’s overall cultural environment as a conservative or “red” state.
Although 81% of Idaho adults say they are certain or fairly certain that God exists, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the nation is experiencing increasing secularism in government and education. This reflects a growing national abandonment of belief in God and an increasing percentage who say they are “religiously unaffiliated” (atheists, agnostics, and those who don’t identify with a particular religion).
In Idaho, the authors report, blacks and whites share a strong fidelity to family as an institution. Nationally, however, nearly 9 million children of all races are are negatively affected by the absence of fathers.
Although positive male role models are critical for a child’s development, homes without fathers have grown significantly since the 1960s. As the so-called Moynihan report made painfully clear in 1965, the decline of the black nuclear family in America significantly slowed blacks’ progress toward economic and social equality.
By contrast, Idaho’s black families bear little or no resemblance to this national black experience. Consider the fact that American society as a whole has witnessed rapid gains in separation and divorce, as well as in never-married mothers.
The authors make two observations about the positive influence of Idaho’s black males in family life: 1) the proportion of single-family households headed by women is significantly lower than the country as a whole (6% vs. 26%), and 2) the proportion of single-family households headed by men is significantly higher (22% vs. 6%).
The authors conclude by noting that the history of black Idahoans “is neither well-documented nor studied in depth,” and suggest that more research could uncover “valuable insights” into what led to their prosperity.
More research undoubtedly would be helpful. But these remarkable preliminary findings by Malladi and Thompson show how a society that relies upon the traditional values of faith, family, freedom, and entrepreneurship is more likely to economically advance those who diligently work to succeed. Such findings are consistent with the experience of blacks in Idaho, since they generally raised themselves not to be dependent on government.
Meritocracy and a Level Playing Field
The findings also defy the common belief that all personal problems are solvable simply by creating additional government interventions, including greater regulatory power. Such a view has led to an increasingly stifling orthodoxy of affirmative action programs with racial and gender preferences.
However, even the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning pillar of the Washington establishment, admits that the nation’s poverty rates have remained unchanged since the implementation of affirmative action policies.
Thus, one clear lesson of the Malladi-Thompson study is that a culture of meritocracy based upon a level playing field, as evidenced by the black experience in Idaho, creates prosperity.
Equal opportunity for all, as opposed to mandating equal results, is the best and most effective way for an individual to succeed—even while overcoming persistent inequality.
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