The American Dream has always been built on a false sense of equal opportunity for upward mobility in this country, but a recent study found just how shaky a foundation that myth rests on.
On Monday, The New York Times wrote about research from Stanford economist Raj Chetty, Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren, and census researchers Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter. They looked at racial gaps across generations and found that black boys who grew up in wealthy households are more likely to become poor than white boys who grew up in the same income level. As Chetty and Hendren wrote in their executive summary: “Black children born to parents in the top income quintile are almost as likely to fall to the bottom quintile as they are to remain in the top quintile.”
This disparity persists among black and white children who grow up in the same neighborhoods, even on the same block. The study asserts that even the worst places for low-income white children to grow up produce about the same outcomes as the best places for low-income black children.
Perhaps one of the study’s most surprising findings is that the income gap between white and black Americans is almost entirely driven by men’s outcomes, not women’s. As the Times put it, “Black and white girls from families with comparable earnings attain similar individual incomes as adults.”
The study notes that incarceration is an area in which gender difference is most stark, with black men raised in the top 1% of earners being just as likely to be incarcerated as white men earning around $36,000. (Although women of color are the fastest growing population of incarcerated people.) After the Times story was published, some pointed out that many limitations exist when it comes to reporting data pertaining to black women.
But there is no question that black Americans, who live in a country with policies designed around centuries of racism to deny them wealth and opportunity, face completely different barriers to achieving success. Without addressing racial discrimination, black children will continue to be left behind.