Social Mobility Memos

The unbending arc: America’s race gap is stuck

Richard V. Reeves

America is in danger of becoming stuck, with insufficient social, geographical, or economic mobility. That’s the claim I made in a recent essay for Esquire magazine, a collaboration between the magazine and Brookings. (You can read the whole package here.)

The diagnosis of ‘stuckness’ is clearest of all for black Americans. For one thing, the chances of being stuck in poverty are greater. Peter Edelman showed in his landmark book So Rich, So Poor that 44 percent of people who are poor on any given day will be in poverty for at least four of the following ten years. But for black adults the figure is 61 percent.

Poverty persists across generations, too. Half of the black children born on the bottom rung of the income ladder (the bottom quintile) will stay there as adults. A boy who grows up in Baltimore will earn 28 percent less simply because he grew up in Baltimore. Sixty-six percent of black children live in America’s poorest neighborhoods, compared with six percent of white children.

Recent events have shone a light on the black experience in dozens of U.S. cities. Behind the riots and the rage, the statistics tell a simple, damning story. Progress toward equality for black Americans has essentially halted. The average black family has an income that is 59 percent of the average white family, down from 65 percent in 2000. In the job market, race gaps are immobile, too. In the 1950s, black Americans were twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. And today? Still twice as likely.

In part this reflects geographical separation, too. While the degree of segregation by race has reduced slightly in recent years, as shown by my colleague William Frey, black Americans are still likely to live in areas of concentrated income poverty, and to be Stuck in Place, as the title of Patrick Sharkey’s influential book puts it.

Race gaps in wealth are perhaps the most striking. The average white household is now thirteen times wealthier than the average black one. This is the widest gap in a quarter of a century. The recession hit families of all races, but it resulted in a wealth wipeout for black families. In 2007, the average black family had a net worth of $19,200, almost entirely in housing stock, typically at the cheap, fragile end of the market. By 2010, this had fallen to $16,600. By 2013—by which point white wealth levels had started to recover—it was down to $11,000. In national economic terms, black wealth is now essentially nonexistent.

Half a century after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the arc of history is no longer bending toward justice. A few years ago, it was not unreasonable to hope that changing attitudes, increasing education, and a growing economy would surely, if slowly, bring black and white America closer together. It is now clear that time and economic growth alone will not heal the racial divide.