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Shocking Study: A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Grow Up to Be Poorer Than Their Parents

black children in schoolAn 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 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.


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14 thoughts on “Shocking Study: A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Grow Up to Be Poorer Than Their Parents

  1. Michael Hollis says:

    I can't help but consider how much of this has to do with the economics around higher education. If the CBC and NAACP wanted to regain some stature they would be fighting with Elizabeth Warren on student loan interest rates. To be clear, they should be advocating for more funding in the form of grants but we just can't get there. So many black families struggle with paying for college and saving for retirement. Not chaining families and young people to college debt would go a long way in helping change the paradigm.

  2. JF Williams says:

    I think it's more than just that. Just look at so many situations that have happened in the last 40-50 years to have hurt the middle class:

    1. NAFTA and other free trade agreements which have off-shored factories and other jobs to countries that do not have Unions, laws and government agencies regulating workplace rights like OSHA and U.S. DOL

    2. Technology advancements that creates greater opportunity for outsourcing

    3. Political(conservative) push-back against unionism as well enabling companies to relax standards on overtime, vacation and sick leave, disability pay, pensions, and comp time

    4. Political pushback against labor-friendly courts; installing State and Federal Court Judges less willing to hear out complaints of workplace discrimination involving race and gender.

    5. Living in states that fight tooth and nail against workplace equity. I think we know them as "redstates".

    I can list more but I think you get the gist. The middle class has been attacked greatly in the last few decades. And unfortunately black people tend to get the worst of the attacks.

  3. Parents must continue to teach their children that they should work only for themselves, learn about trading and being fiscally responsible. Having children and teaching them the importance of self sufficiency will ease the notion of always waiting for someone to pay them. Ownership is key. Teach them early, cultivate their minds and show them how to invest, save and forecast what people need and want. Change the way you do business. Work together and stop belittling your fellow man but showing support. Times are changing and you have to break the cycle of an impoverished system that has failed this country.

  4. Access to the opportunity structure is fading, especially for black youth. These facts account for the school to prison pipeline and have been documented from back in the early 40's. Problem/solution!

  5. Jim Brown is a "Warrior" not a foot soldier being led on the path of others interest.

  6. Michael Hollis says:

    JF Williams Not disagreeing with any of the points you made but I'm just looking at the balance sheet for black homes not the overall economic headwinds that are affecting all households.

    This generation of young middle class black folks is very credentialed and they're often obtaining those credentials by getting into debt. While the majority of American families are showing difficulty with keeping up with the cost of higher education the cost disproportionately affects black wealth building–particularly because white families on the whole tend to have more saved over the longer term than black families. This generation of middle class blacks should have more disposable income and a greater capacity to build wealth because the incentive for getting an education is higher than it's ever been in the labor force and it's increasing. Yet we see a negative trend in black wealth. I just believe if we took away the pressure of college debt young middle class blacks could put their money into more wealth building activities wether they be saving for a mortgage, saving for retirement, saving to take a risk and start a business etc..

    Many of the things you mentioned, while true, are really things that have made the American middle class at large weaker.

  7. Michael Hollis says:

    These all sound good but no investment is guaranteed to give you a positive return and not everyone has the capacity to work for themselves and an even smaller percentage of people have the ability to actually forecast trends. Entrepreneurship is tough, not for everyone and we certainly shouldn't encourage everyone to get into the arena so to speak. Too often in our community we believe wealth is a formula. It's not. As a community we do, however, need to have a much better understanding of accounting principles and a familiarity with capital markets to at least hedge against loss.

  8. Stop watching Facebook and videos and take there ass to class. Some parents dont deservevtheir children or the right to be called a mother or a father. Shout out to the parents who do not meet this stereotype by teaching there kids to be well rounded introducing the arts by working hard to pay for their children college expenses but most importantly being by their child's side thick through thin and stressing the key to life is in learning so continue to always being open to learn.

  9. To quote SC State Senator (19th District) Kay Patterson (a Black man): "We're so busy giving our kids what we didn't have, that we're not giving them what we had!"…

  10. ?: WHY do we expect the CBC, NAACP, et al to be all, to all, for all? People complain about what they aren't doing even tho their membership numbers are way down and thus their resources more limited? Also, too many sit back and ask why when noone make them aware of a budding issue until late into the issue . . .

  11. If your kids have $200+ sneakers, a box full electronic games, all the latest fashion(s) clothes yet making C- or below: who and what is the problem?

  12. JF Williams says:

    Frank H Staley

    The Congressional Black Caucus are ELECTED officials, paid for by taxpayer dollars to create and support legislation that helps their constituents in their districts…who VOTED THEM IN OFFICE.

    The CBC should be the FIRST line of defense against political and economic policies harmful to the black people who put them office. The Civil Rights Movement was practically about having equal representation in government and a say in how America is governed.

    I certainly hope you are not a black person making this comment.

  13. Not shocking actually feel vindicated. Black people's worst enemy is other black people including their parents.

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