Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have once again made the nation consider the durability of racial injustice as a defining factor of the American experience. Black children go to increasingly segregated schools, experience significantly less mobility than whites and are far more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. The American dream has always been defined by upward mobility, but for black Americans, it’s harder to get into the middle class, and a middle-class lifestyle is more precarious.
There are numerous factors that help explain why blacks have lower levels of upward mobility, but a surprisingly unpersuasive one is family structure. Conservatives like to tout the research of Raj Chetty and others who find that, “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the single strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored.” But this observation comes with a caveat -- children in two-parent households fare worse in areas with large numbers of single parents. There is reason to believe the causation is reversed. Rather than single-parent households causing low upward mobility, low upward mobility and rampant poverty lead to single-parenthood.
Two researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research — Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine — find that single motherhood is largely driven by poverty and inequality, not the other way around. They write,
The combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success.
A report by the British Rowntree Foundation had a similar finding: “Young people born into families in the higher socio-economic classes spend a long time in education and career training, putting off marriage and childbearing until they are established as successful adults.” Women in the slow track, in contrast, face “a disjointed pattern of unemployment, low-paid work and training schemes, rather than an ordered, upward career trajectory.” This is largely due to “truncated education.”
Most recently, Bhashkar Mazumder finds that, among those between the late 1950s and early 1980s, 50 percent of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position, while only 26 percent of white children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position. His research finds that the role of two-parent families for mobility is less important than conservatives assert. While living in a two-parent households increases upward mobility for blacks, it has no effect on upward mobility for white children, nor does it affect downward mobility for either race. If marriage has a significant effect, it is not marriage per se, but rather income and parenting effects that are at work; married people by default have more incomes and more time to spend with children. The solution, then, is paid leave, universal pre-K and government-provided daycare, not wealthy conservatives clutching their pearls and chastising young people for not getting hitched.
So, marriage fails to explain black-white gaps in mobility. What, then, is responsible for the lack of upward mobility among blacks?
1. Housing segregation
Racial segregation explains how it’s so easy for the black middle class to slip back into poverty. As sociologist John R. Logan writes, “The most recent census data show that on average, black and Hispanic households live in neighborhoods with more than one and a half times the poverty rate of neighborhoods where the average non-Hispanic white lives.” This has profound implications for upward mobility.
A 2009 study by Patrick Sharkey finds that, “Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined.” Sharkley finds that if black and white children grew up in similar environments, the downward mobility gap would shrink by 25-to-33 percent. As the chart below shows, black children are far more likely to grow up in high poverty disadvantaged neighborhoods, which makes upward mobility difficult. (Source)
2. War on drugs and mass incarceration
The war on drugs disproportionately targets people of color: One in 12 working-age African-American men are incarcerated. While whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession. The U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005, while the general population grew only 44 percent. The effects of incarceration on upward mobility are profound.
Bruce Western finds that, “by age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.” This impact, however, is more profound for blacks. Western finds that incarceration reduces lifetime earnings for whites by 2 percent, but Hispanics and blacks by 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively. All of this means that men who are incarcerated will live a life at the bottom. For men who begin life in the lowest income quintile, only 2 percent of those who are incarcerated will make it into the top fifth, while 15 percent of those who are not incarcerated will.
3. Segregated employment opportunities
In "When Work Disappears," Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points to the importance of occupational segregation -- the fact that African-Americans who are often concentrated in poor urban areas struggle to get jobs in the suburbs or places with a long commute. Only 2.9 percent of white workers rely on public transportation, compared to 8.3 percent of Latino workers and 11.5 percent percent of black workers.
An excellent example of occupational segregation is in Silicon Valley, where data released after pressure from advocacy groups like Color of Change suggests that at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google and eBay, only 3 to 4 percent of workers are black or Hispanic. However, a study by Working Partnerships USA finds that, “While Blacks and Latinos make up only 3 to 4 percent of the disclosed companies’ core tech workforce, they are 41 percent of all private security guards in Silicon Valley, 72 percent of all janitorial and building cleaning workers, and 76 percent of all grounds maintenance workers.” (Source)
Much of the problem is social networks. Recent research by Nancy DiTomaso finds that favoritism perpetuates inequality, even in the absence of racial bias. She finds that most employees relied on social networks to obtain a majority of the jobs they held in their lifetime. Because social networks tend to be segregated, this fosters occupational segregation. Miles Corak shows that many children get their first job through their parents, further solidifying the effect of social networks on occupational segregation.
Marianne Bertrand finds that changing the names on résumés to those that are traditionally white or black affects call-backs for jobs. White-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview. She also finds that whites with better résumés were 30 percent more likely to get a call-back than whites with worse résumés, but for blacks, more experience only increased call-backs by 9 percent. Another barrier to employment can be social networks.
4. Wealth gaps
Wealth is an important part of a middle-class lifestyle. When a family or individual is struck with illness or the loss of a job, wealth provides support. When a child attends college or is trying to get on his or her feet, a family with wealth can help pay the bills. The large wealth gaps between black families and white families, then, helps explain why black families have such high levels of downward mobility. The recently released Survey of Consumer Finances allows us an opportunity to examine wealth gaps. Matt Bruenig finds that, “The median white family has a net worth of $134,000. The median Hispanic family has a net worth of $14,000. The median black family has a net worth of $11,000.”
Between 2007 and 2010, all racial groups lost large amounts of wealth. However, the effects fell disproportionately on Hispanics and blacks, who saw a 44 percent and 31 percent reduction in wealth, compared to an 11 percent drop for whites. This was due to blacks and Latinos disproportionately receiving subprime loans, both because of outright lending discrimination and housing segregation. A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African-Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. They find five main factors responsible for driving the gap, which together explain 66 percent of the growth in inequality. The factors, in order of importance, are number of years of homeownership, household income, unemployment, college education and financial support or inheritance
5. Two-tiered education system
The U.S. increasingly has a two-tiered education system, with students of color trapped in underfunded schools. (Source) A recent study finds that, “schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students.”
Schools today are becoming more segregated, rather than less segregated. The average white student attends a school that is 72.5 percent white and 8.3 percent black, while the average black student attends a school that is only 27.6 percent white, but is 48.8 percent black. These schools are underfunded and understaffed. In 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit after 18 public schools had “literature classes without books,” computer classes where students discuss what they would do if they had computers, “classes without regular teachers” and classes without enough seats where students stood in the back.
Mazumder finds that student scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (a comprehensive test taken toward the last few years of high school) can help explain differences in upward mobility between blacks and whites. He also finds that completing 16 years of education is a crucial factor in upward mobility. The fact that AFQT scores help predict upward mobility is often used by those who argue that racial differences in intelligence largely explain differences in upward mobility. However, since the AFQT is taken in high school, a better explanation is that differences in AFQT scores represent the combined impacts of poverty, bad schools, wealth gaps, substandard healthcare and segregated employment opportunities working together to reduce long-term mobility.
The idea that there are biological factors reducing upward mobility for African-Americans is both odious and entirely false. As Nathaniel Hendren told me when discussing his research,
We can absolutely reject that theory. In order to believe that theory, you have to believe that the spacial differences across the U.S. are differences in some kind of transmission of genes. Suppose you move from one area to another and you have a kid. Does your kid pick up the mobility characteristics of the place you go to? Now obviously, your genes don’t change when you move. What we find is that kids start to pick up the mobility characteristics of the place they move to, and they do so in the proportion to the amount of time they end up spending in that place. The majority of the differences across places are casual. If people lived in different places, they would have different outcomes.
This all leads to the saddest conclusion -- were it not for poorly conceived policies, we could have more upward mobility in the U.S. While conservatives like to point at cultural factors and throw up their hands, a far more productive solution is to redress our massive public policy problems -- like the war on drugs and dropout mill schools -- that are proven to reduce upward mobility.
The conservative mind-set is ahistorical -- we are told to throw away the legacy of slavery and segregation and expect blacks to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, ignoring the structural dynamics keeping them down. Research by Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Matthew Blackwell finds that Southerners who live in counties with higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 express more racial resentment and are more likely to oppose affirmative action. As Marx noted, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”