Downward mobility trend threatens black middle class
In the upper echelons of society, these are halcyon days for African-American achievement. Never before have so many blacks reached the highest levels of government, business, media, entertainment and sports.
At the same time, however, the success of people such as Condoleezza Rice, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington and Tiger Woods has masked a troubling trend.
Reports last week from the Pew Research Center documented extensive downward mobility among the sons and daughters of the black middle class: 45% of black children from those families end up "near poor," Pew reported. The comparable number for white families is 16%.
It would be hard to overstate the significance for blacks or for society generally. It means that the expansion of the black middle class — the key to attaining racial equality since legal barriers were removed 40 years ago — is in jeopardy.
On a personal level, it gives blacks reason to doubt the assumption that America is a place where each generation will surpass the previous one.
African-Americans sense this slippage. Pew pollsters sampling black America found the greatest level of pessimism since 1983. Just one in five says things are better now than they were five years ago. Looking ahead, fewer than half say they think life for blacks will get better.
The causes are complex and interlinked, but several bear closer scrutiny:
* Family formation. The biggest driver of rising income and living standards of American families over the past several decades is the two-paycheck family. Too few African-Americans benefit from that trend: The percentage of married blacks in their 30s plunged from 68% in 1969 to 42% in 1998. (Whites have also experienced a decline in marriage rates across generations, but from considerably higher starting points.)
Moreover, nearly 70% of black babies are born out of wedlock, up from about 25% in the mid-1960s. Any discussion of the class divide that ignores family factors ignores a root cause.
* Gender. Discussing trends in black America also requires separating men and women. From 1974 to 2004, the median income fell 12% for black men while rising 75% for the women. One partial explanation is that twice as many black women as men graduate from college.
Those stark male-female income trends affect family formation: A high-earning woman has little incentive to marry a low-earning man. This suggests sharpening the focus on the plight of African-American boys, particularly those growing up without father figures or positive male role models.
* Education. Achieving middle class status is no guarantee that children will start achieving in school. Studies of well-integrated, middle-class school districts, such as Shaker Heights outside Cleveland, show that parents and teachers have lower expectations of minority students. When that happens, few black students end up being challenged in the advanced classes.
Turning this around is possible. In recent years several middle-class school districts have succeeded in pulling more black students into advanced classes. Overall, however, progress is too slow.
A second problem arises in low-income neighborhoods where teachers devote virtually all their attention to low-performing students, leaving brighter children — those most capable of high achievement later in life — unchallenged. Correcting that requires teacher training and adjustment of academic goals.
* Discrimination. Blacks and whites have sharply different perceptions about the persistence of racial discrimination in U.S. society, Pew found. About two-thirds of blacks say blacks often or almost always face discrimination when applying for a job, renting an apartment or buying a house. By contrast, large majorities of whites believe blacks rarely face bias in these situations. Majorities of both races, however, believe that blacks who don't get ahead have mainly themselves, not discrimination, to blame.
The common thread in determining upward mobility is what social researchers call "stickiness," the social glue that keeps families intact and financially prosperous. Important parts of the formula include health care, good neighborhoods, property ownership, marriage, strong school expectations, saving habits and inherited wealth.
Just as all Americans can take pride in the nation's racial progress and in the achievements of people like Oprah and Tiger, all Americans have a stake in reversing the alarming slide in the black middle class.
The link for this editorial is here.