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The Next Economy: Essay

Left Behind

The nation’s blacks and Latinos have made economic strides in recent decades, but getting into the middle class remains elusive.

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Pay-day lenders: The high cost of loans makes it harder for the poor to rise.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

America’s economic future may be glimpsed on the southwestern side of Houston, in a gated subdivision of new town houses. Julia DeLeon is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who owns a small business and has raised two college-bound daughters. She is sitting in the happy clutter of her older daughter’s new motherhood, glowing as her toddler grandson rolls around on the floor.

But just a few miles away, too many blacks and Latinos have remained trapped in the  lower class or emerged from it just to slip back in. Not the DeLeon family. Its three generations represent the entrepreneurial spirit of self-selected immigrants that has long fueled the U.S. economy. Yet no one in this family is clear on how, or even if, they fit into American life.

 

DeLeon came from Guatemala two decades ago—when daughter Evelyn was a baby—and stayed when her visa expired. Now Evelyn is 21 and juggles school and motherhood. Julia’s teenage daughter, Sharon, was born in Houston and is therefore a citizen, as is Evelyn’s young son. Families can be unwieldy in that way; they don’t conform neatly to pigeonholes and borders.

Julia’s life story is an untidy example of the sort of self-made success about which so many Americans dream. She came to the United States, she recounted, as a stone-broke young mother who spoke no English and bunked with her daughter in the corner of a friend’s apartment. She cleaned houses for poverty wages.

But soon Julia realized that the housecleaning agency was hoarding the profits, and she concluded that the arrangement made no sense. And so she slowly built her own base of clients, offering whichever domestic services affluent Houstonians needed to manage their busy lives. She watched children, walked dogs, and house-sat while investing her earnings in her daughters’ future—Girl Scouts, art classes, church, and volunteer work.

 

“She always found stuff for us to do,” Evelyn said. “I think that’s why we’ve been able to get as far as we have.” The family isn’t wealthy, but Evelyn and her sister are living in a comfortable town house and preparing to set out on their own.

How far they make it as adults will matter a lot—to their family and to the country as a whole. The urban triangle in eastern Texas of Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio is bursting with young people of color such as Evelyn and Sharon—not just Latin-American immigrants but also domestic transplants and the children of both. Meanwhile, largely rural—and white—West Texas is rapidly aging, its communities dying. As a result, the state that saw the largest population gain in the past decade is one of four in which people of color constitute a majority of the population (along with California, Hawaii, and New Mexico).

Infographic

A similar surge is under way nationwide. The 2010 census found that Latinos accounted for 56 percent of the nation’s growth in the past decade, which was actually less than in previous decades, owing to the post-9/11 crackdown on immigration and then to the economic recession. Members of racial and ethnic minorities accounted for nearly 47 percent of Americans younger than 18 years old. In 2009, according to census officials, the median age among white Americans was 41; among African-Americans, it was 32; among Latinos, 27. In the nation’s schools, in its workforce, in its supermarket checkout lines—and increasingly, in its electorate—people of color are, literally, the future.

 

THE WEALTH GAP

The pressing question, however, is how many of these young people will truly join the middle class. Will they reap the benefits of their parents’ labor and achieve an economic security that enables them to buy homes, start businesses, and take road trips even with gasoline at $4 a gallon? This is where the complexities of America’s racial politics, past and present, cloud the way.

Consider the lessons of the would-be black middle class.

In the lexicon of black America, baby boomers are the civil-rights generation. They have witnessed an impressive change in the lives of their children and, now, in their millennial grandchildren. College graduation rates for blacks have quadrupled since the late 1960s. The number of African-American workers in jobs that sociologists regard as middle class has leaped nearly tenfold. Those are two of the three traditional measures of middle-class status.

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The third is income. Here, too, both black and Latino workers have seen a notable improvement since the civil-rights generation stormed onto job sites to demand equal opportunity. The median income for black households jumped from just under $25,000 in 1967 to more than $35,000 in 2007, adjusted for inflation. For Latinos, the median household income climbed beyond $40,000. During the prosperity of the 1990s, the proportion of black families below the poverty line declined from one-third to one-fifth.

Nonetheless, income levels of people of color—and especially blacks—remain far behind that of whites. In 2009, according to census figures, the median income among whites was more than three-quarters higher than for blacks and more than a third higher than for Latinos—roughly the same disparities as in 1972. Measured by income, the racial makeup of the middle class hasn’t changed much.

This article appears in the June 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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