How Black Middle-Class Kids Become Poor Adults

Once grown, African-American children are more likely than their white peers to backslide into a lower economic group.

National Journal
Gillian B. White, The Atlantic
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Gillian B. White, The Atlantic
Feb. 8, 2015, 8:43 p.m.

When it comes to fin­an­cial sta­bil­ity, black Amer­ic­ans are of­ten in much more pre­cari­ous situ­ations than white Amer­ic­ans. Their un­em­ploy­ment rate is high­er, and so is the level of poverty with­in the black com­munity. In 2013, the poverty rate among white Amer­ic­ans was 9.6 per­cent; among black Amer­ic­ans it was 27.2 per­cent. And the gap between the wealth of white fam­il­ies and black fam­il­ies has widened to its highest levels since 1989, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study by Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

The facts of this rift aren’t new, or all that sur­pris­ing. But per­haps what’s most un­set­tling about the cur­rent eco­nom­ic cli­mate in black Amer­ica is that when black fam­il­ies at­tain middle-class status, the like­li­hood that their chil­dren will re­main there, or do bet­ter, isn’t high.

“Even black Amer­ic­ans who make it to the middle class are likely to see their kids fall down the lad­der,” writes Richard Reeves, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. In a re­cent blog post Reeves says that sev­en of 10 black chil­dren who are born to fam­il­ies with in­come that falls in the middle quin­tile of the spec­trum will find them­selves with in­come that’s one to two quin­tiles be­low their par­ents’ dur­ing their own adult­hood.

A 2014 study from the Fed­er­al Re­serve Bank of Chica­go, which looked at factors such as par­ent­al in­come, edu­ca­tion, and fam­ily struc­ture, shows a sim­il­ar pat­tern: Many black Amer­ic­ans not only fail to move up, but also show an in­creased like­li­hood of back­slid­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the study, “In re­cent dec­ades, blacks have ex­per­i­enced sub­stan­tially less up­ward in­tergen­er­a­tion­al mo­bil­ity and sub­stan­tially more down­ward in­tergen­er­a­tion­al mo­bil­ity than whites.”

The great­er prob­ab­il­ity of slip­ping back ap­plies to blacks across in­come groups. Ac­cord­ing to the Fed study, about 60 per­cent of black chil­dren whose par­ents had in­come that fell in­to the top 50 per­cent of the dis­tri­bu­tion saw their own in­come fall in­to the bot­tom half dur­ing adult­hood. This type of down­ward slide was com­mon for only 36 per­cent of white chil­dren.

But the gap in mo­bil­ity was sig­ni­fic­ant for lower-class fam­il­ies as well. “For most of the bot­tom half of the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion, the ra­cial dif­fer­ences in up­ward mo­bil­ity are con­sist­ently between 20 and 30 per­cent,” writes seni­or eco­nom­ist Bhashkar Ma­zum­der, the study’s au­thor. “If fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of white and black Amer­ic­ans ex­per­i­ence the same rates of in­tergen­er­a­tion­al mo­bil­ity as these co­horts, we should ex­pect to see that blacks on av­er­age would not make any re­l­at­ive pro­gress.”

The ex­plan­a­tions for this phe­nomen­on are var­ied, but largely hinge on many of the ex­ist­ing cri­ti­cisms re­lat­ing to so­cioeco­nom­ics and race in the U.S. Eco­nom­ists cite lower edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment, high­er rates of single-par­ent house­holds, and geo­graph­ic se­greg­a­tion as po­ten­tial ex­plan­a­tions for these trends. The lat­ter de­term­ines not only what neigh­bor­hoods people live in, but of­ten what types of schools chil­dren at­tend — and that could play a role in hinder­ing their edu­ca­tion­al and pro­fes­sion­al at­tain­ment later on. Ac­cord­ing to Reeves, “In terms of op­por­tun­ity, there are still two Amer­icas, di­vided by race.”

Still, most eco­nom­ists lack a clear, defin­it­ive ex­plan­a­tion for why, after reach­ing the middle class, many black Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies quickly lose that status as their chil­dren fall be­hind.

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