A new study, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States, is more powerful than some previous work because it examines what hinders or helps mobility not just in the moment, but across generations.
You and I want every child to have a good chance to do well in life, and we know that doesn’t always happen. The better we understand why, the more we as a community will be able to improve the odds of success for all children.
I want to walk through some key results of a new study of the factors that hold some children back.
In 1940, about 92 percent of American children grew up to earn more than their parents. There are a lot of ways to measure success, but earnings provide hard data that’s easily measured. The percentage declined over the decades, and since 1985, it has hovered around 50 percent, a coin flip, except the outcomes are a result of more than chance. They aren’t random.
The new study, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States, is more powerful than some previous work because it examines what hinders or helps mobility not just in the moment, but across generations. When you compare families, even ones of similar wealth, education, family structure and neighborhood, there are still differences by race. Outcomes rise with improvements in those factors, but at every level, race matters.
It found that Hispanic Americans are moving up across generations, but black Americans and American Indians are not. The gap between them and white Americans persists, just as the earnings gap between men and women persists.
People have lots of ideas about why those gaps exist, but most of them are wrong, and this study adds evidence of that. The study comes from the Equality of Opportunity Project and was the work of researchers from Stanford and Harvard universities and the U.S. Census Bureau.
They looked at decades of data on millions of children, with a particular focus on the earnings of people in their mid-30s and the status of their parents when the 30-somethings were children.
The Hispanic rates of upward-income mobility are slightly below those of whites across generations. Asian immigrants have much higher levels of upward mobility than other groups, but Asian children whose parents were born in the U.S. had rates similar to white people.
American Indian and black children are much less likely to rise, and much more likely to move downward, from where their parents started. The black-white gap is almost entirely driven by the difference in outcomes for men. Black women do as well as white women raised in the same economic level, and sometimes even better.
“Black children are more likely to grow up in single-parent households with less wealth and parents with lower levels of education,” the report acknowledges. But the gap existed when researchers compared black and white men who grew up in similar circumstances. In single-parent or two-parent homes, wealthy or poor, the gap was still there.
The gap existed even for people who grew up on the same block. Black and white men who grew up in low-poverty areas have better outcomes, but there is still a gap between them.
Whether a father is present didn’t seem to affect outcomes for black girls or white boys. But black boys fared better if they lived in a neighborhood where most black fathers were present, regardless of whether their own father was present, suggesting role models in the community mattered. (And economic opportunity in a neighborhood and more fathers present tend to go together.)
My father wasn’t present, but my Uncle Will provided a strong role model for me and my brothers. And our mother was always disciplinarian, guardian angel and provider. Our neighborhood wasn’t known for its success stories, but we did OK.
Fewer than 5 percent of black children grow up in the kind of neighborhoods that most foster upward mobility — low-poverty neighborhoods where most fathers are present. About 63 percent of white children grow up in such neighborhoods.
That’s bleak, but the report found some hope for reducing the gaps.
“Black men who grow up in (census) tracts with less racial bias among whites … earn more and are less likely to be incarcerated,” the report found.
The report identified a few approaches that could reduce the gaps: mentoring black boys, reducing racial bias among whites, reducing discrimination in criminal-justice systems and increasing interaction across racial groups.
Those are hard things to do effectively, but the payoff would be transformative for individual lives and for the country.
Having a clearer look at what’s behind the gaps improves the chances that work can be accomplished.