March 21, 2018; New York Times, “Opinion”
Raising the economic situation of the millions of Americans in poverty remains on the national agenda. Compounding the problem is the persistent gap between Black, Latinx, and American Indian people in the US and Whites and Asians, which has remained even during times of strong economic growth. A recent study provides some new insights that challenge conventional thinking and point toward policy directions that may prove more effective.
Using multigenerational data for 20 million children and their parents, Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie R. Jones, and Sonya Porter, researchers at the Equality of Opportunity Project, studied the racial dimension of economic status over several generations. Comparing outcomes for five separate population groups (Latinxs, non-Latinx whites, Blacks, Asians, and American Indians), they found that the gap is closing for Latinxs but not for the Black or Native American populations. Despite several waves of national and state policy efforts, there has been no significant movement.
Black and American Indian children have substantially lower rates of upward mobility than the other racial groups. For example, black children born to parents in the bottom household income quintile have a 2.5 percent chance of rising to the top quintile of household income, compared with 10.6 percent for whites.
While Black women have shown strong progress, the lack of success for Black men in moving up the economic ladder is causing overall results for Black Americans to stagnate: “The black-white gap in upward mobility is driven entirely by differences in men’s, not women’s, outcomes. Black and white men have very different outcomes even if they grow up in two-parent families with comparable incomes, education, and wealth; live on the same city block; and attend the same school.”
Surprisingly, the gap between Black and White men exists at all levels of family income and in almost every neighborhood. “These results reveal that differences in neighborhood-level resources, such as the quality of schools, cannot explain the intergenerational gaps between black and white boys by themselves.” For most Black boys, even if their families have seen their situations improve, it is likely that they will lose economic ground.
The EOP Study found that moving out of communities with high rates of poverty is not enough; the difference is made by two other factors not often addressed by policymakers. Black men who have the good fortune to grow up in better neighborhoods with low levels of racial bias and a strong percentage of two-parent households show “higher incomes and lower rates of incarceration as adults” and can close the gap. Currently, less than five percent of Black children grow up in communities with very low rates of poverty and with more than 50 percent of Black fathers present; on the other hand, more than 60 percent of white boys live in these conditions.
Traditional policy efforts have focused on mechanisms for improving income, either by raising earning capacity or through direct government subsidies. However, if this analysis holds, they’ll continue to falter because they do not address the environmental issues the studies find critical. Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, in a New York Times op-ed, reflected on the study’s challenges.
As black women began to take advantage of the opportunities opened by the civil rights movement, black men were hit first with deindustrialization—the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs throughout large swaths of our nation—and then with a surge in incarceration unlike anything a democratic nation had ever seen. Black children bore the brunt of their parents’ suffering. Many well-meaning Americans remained oblivious to a national tragedy. How does one make it more possible for more black families to raise their children in “better” communities?
We act as though economic inequality is inevitable, relegating poor children of all races to schools to which most parents would never choose to send their own children, schools often in neighborhoods where most would never choose to live. We segregate ourselves by race and class and accept the inequality of opportunity that doing so breeds.
Having the will to take on the difficult parts of these new insights will not be easy. Increasing the percentage of two-parent black families makes for a difficult discussion. Building communities where racism is low has proved a herculean task. The data tells us that we have a large and persistent social problem that leads to very different futures for Black and white children. Individual change is important, but will not be enough if we do not develop the next generation of social policies and address the importance of fixing the lingering legacy of American racism.—Martin Levine