Racial Gaps in Upward Mobility Persist Even Among the Rich

Racial Gaps in Upward Mobility Persist Even Among the Rich

Racial disparities in economic mobility in the United States persist across generations in ways that cannot be explained by neighborhood, parents' marital status, educational attainment, or wealth, a report from the Equality of Opportunity Project finds.

Based on data covering about twenty million children born between 1978 and 1983, the report, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States (106 pages, PDF), found that African Americans and Native Americans have much lower rates of intergenerational upward mobility and much higher rates of downward mobility than other racial/ethnic groups. For example, African-American children born to parents in the bottom household income quintile have only a 2.5 percent chance of rising to the top quintile as adults, while those born to parents in the top quintile are nearly as likely to fall to the bottom quintile (16.7 percent) as they are to stay in the top (18 percent). The report also found that Native Americans have just a 3.3 percent chance of rising from the bottom to the top quintile, an 18.8 percent chance of falling from the top to the bottom quintile, and a 23 percent chance of staying in the top quintile, compared with 10.6 percent, 8.7 percent, and 41.1 percent, respectively, for white children.

Led by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the U.S. Census Bureau, the study found that the income gap between African Americans and white Americans who grow up in families with comparable incomes is due to disparities in men's incomes, and that African-American women earn slightly more than white women from comparable income backgrounds. According to the report, the black-white income gap among men persists even among those who grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of household income, wealth, and educational attainment.

Nor can the black-white disparity be fully explained by the neighborhood in which boys grow up. According to the study, in 99 percent of U.S. Census tracts, African-American boys grow up to earn less than white boys from families with similar incomes in the same neighborhood. In areas where white boys have higher rates of upward mobility, however, African-American boys also fare better, although the black-white gaps in those "good" neighborhoods are wider than in high-poverty areas.

"[P]olicies focused on improving the economic outcomes of a single generation — such as temporary cash transfers, minimum wage increases, or universal basic income programs...and [p]olicies that reduce residential segregation or enable black and white children to attend the same schools without achieving racial integration within neighborhoods and schools would...likely leave much of the gap in place," the report argues. "Initiatives whose impacts cross neighborhood and class lines and increase upward mobility specifically for black men hold the greatest promise of narrowing the black-white gap."

(Photo credit: Fotis Bobolas)

"Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States." Equality of Opportunity Project Report 03/19/2018. "Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States." Equality of Opportunity Project Report Non-Technical Summary 03/09/2018.