An unsettling majority of Black children born into middle-class families will drop down into a poorer income bracket as adults, according to a devastating new study by researchers for the Brookings Institution.
In a study conducted for the Boston Federal Reserve, researchers Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill confirmed what many African-Americans have long known: In America, your chances of escaping childhood poverty and moving into a higher income bracket are dramatically higher if you were born white than if you were born Black.
While about 16 percent of white children born into the poorest one-fifth of U.S. families will rise to become a member of the top one-fifth by the time they turn 40 years old, just 3 percent of Black children will make it to the top, the researchers found.
“Half the black children born into the bottom quintile remain there in adulthood, compared
to just one in four whites,” they write. “Only 3 percent join the top income quintile, implying that a real-life ‘rags to riches’ story is unlikely for black children.”
But perhaps the most devastating finding in the report concerns middle-class Black children. Of Black children born to parents in the middle income group, only 14 percent will move up into higher income brackets as adults, while 37 percent will remain in the middle class and an almost unbelievable 69 percent will move downward and be poorer than their parents.
The equivalent breakdown in the white community is 44 percent will move up, 23 percent will remain middle class and 34 percent will drop down into poorer groups.
(The numbers don’t add up to 100 percent because, since there are five income groups, it’s possible to be poorer than your parents but still be considered middle class.)
The study is a breath-taking chronicling of the effects of systemic racism and white privilege in the U.S., a subject that has gotten national exposure in recent days after conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly’s claim that it no longer exists.
Researchers in recent years have punched an enormous hole in the long-cherished American idyll of Horatio Alger — America as the place where anybody with gumption and drive can pull himself up by his bootstraps and accumulate untold wealth. But lately we have seen how untrue that notion really is, as economists have found that the U.S. lags most comparable nations — including France, Germany and even Canada – when it comes to social mobility.
“If you want to travel from the bottom to the top, try being born in western Europe,” Timothy Noah wrote on MSNBC.com back in May.
The Brookings Institution researchers found that poor whites, even if they won’t always make it to the top of the income ladder, are much more likely than poor Blacks to escape the most grinding poverty. For white children born into poverty, just 23 percent will still be poor at age 40, while an astounding 51 percent of poor Black children will still be poor at age 40.
The researchers attempted to identify the factors that most significantly affect mobility and concluded cognitive test scores in adolescence can explain a large proportion of both upward and downward mobility. Other factors include higher education and family structure.
“Given the literature showing that differences in skills open up early in life, and, if
anything, then widen through the K-12 years, the implications of the findings on race and
mobility are that more attention should be paid to closing gaps in skill development during
childhood and adolescence,” the researchers write.
Among poor children, those who gain a college degree are 20 times more likely than their high school dropout counterparts to make it to the top income bracket (just 1 percent of the high school dropouts make it to the top. On the other side, poor children who fail to gain even a high school diploma have a 54 percent probability of remaining on the bottom rung as adults.
The researchers concluded that the children of “continuously married” mothers have a greater chance of escaping poverty than the children of “discontinuously married” mothers (those who were married for part of their childhoods) and “never married” mothers, with the numbers even more strongly correlated for African-American children. For poor children with continuously married mothers, just 17 percent stayed at the bottom rung, compared to 32 percent with discontinuously married mothers.
But it turns out the marriage status of the mother is a key factor not by itself but because it means the child is more likely to gain access to a higher income and to more “engaged” parenting.
As far as regions go, the researchers found that the Great Plains has the most upward mobility and the Southeast has the least, while the West Coast and Northeast fall somewhere in between.
There is also a strong correlation to the type of neighborhood a child is born into and his chances of moving up. Previous researchers have said that 84 percent of Black children born from 1955 through 1970 were raised in “high disadvantage” neighborhoods, compared to just 5 percent of whites. Only 2 percent of Blacks were raised in “low disadvantage” neighborhoods, compared to 45 percent of whites. An estimated one-quarter to one-third of the Black-white gap in downward mobility from the top three income quintiles can be explained by differences in neighborhood poverty.
In other words, aggressive segregation and redlining Blacks into neighborhoods with fewer resources and inadequate schools ultimately resigns more Blacks to poverty.