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Man rubs his eyes as he waits in a line of jobseekers, to attend the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York
Social Mobility Memos

6 charts showing race gaps within the American middle class

Richard V. Reeves and Dayna Bowen Matthew

The U.S. has substantial economic and racial inequality, and the two overlap. Black Americans, for example, are more likely to be poor. But as we argue in our new paper, “Time for justice: Tackling race inequalities in health and housing,” and on a podcast with Isabel Sawhill, race gaps cannot be explained by economic factors alone.

Black Americans are disadvantaged compared to whites—even when they have higher incomes and more education. Here are six examples.

1. Infant mortality

The infant mortality rate for black babies is twice that for whites. But this is not just a poverty story. Babies born to well educated, middle-class black mothers are more likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to poor white mothers with less than a high school education:

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2. Marriage

There is a well-documented “marriage gap” by social class, with higher-income, better-educated Americans much more likely to get and stay married. But the story is slightly different for blacks. Marriage rates are much lower among black women with college degrees compared to white women. The proportion of black female college graduates aged 25 to 35 who have never married is 60 percent, compared to 38 percent for whites:

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3. Downward mobility

Black children born into families in the bottom quintile of the income distribution are twice as likely to be stuck there as whites. Just as striking, however, is the fact that black children born into middle-quintile families are also twice as likely to be downwardly mobile as middle-income whites:

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4. College debt

A four-year college degree can be a ticket to upward mobility. The problem is that very few people from low-income families complete college (if they even enroll); that college is worth less, in terms of earnings, for these students even if they do; and that black students are much more likely to attend poorer-quality institutions. Even among those who obtain a four-year college degree, there are big race gaps in levels of student debt. Four years after earning a bachelor’s degree, the average black graduate has $52,726 of student loan debt, compared to $28,006 for whites, as a new Evidence Speaks paper, “Black-white disparity in student loan debt more than triples after graduation” by Judith Scott-Clayton and Jing Li shows:

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5. Neighborhood poverty

Segregation by race has declined modestly in recent decades, but remains at very high levels. Native-born black Americans experience levels of urban neighborhood segregation nearly three times higher than native-born black British citizens. There is a connection here with poverty: black Americans are more likely to be poor than white Americans, and more likely to live in poor neighborhoods. But segregation stretches up the income scale. Affluent black families, with annual incomes of more than $100,000, are four times more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than comparable white families–and only half as likely to live in affluent areas:

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6. Good schools

The median black parent lives in an area where the average school performance on state math tests falls at the 30th percentile. In part this is because black families are poorer, and so live in poorer neighborhoods, where schools are typically weaker. (For a more detailed explanation of this methodology see “Asian-American success and the pitfalls of generalization.”)

But even for black and white parents with bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degrees, the race gap remains, according to our own analysis:

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The race gaps persist all the way up the educational distribution of parents. In fact, the typical (median) black parent with an advanced degree lives in an area with lower-performing schools than the typical white parent with just a high school diploma or GED (not shown).

Race, injustice and the American Dream

Whoever occupies the Oval Office on January 20th, 2017 will face a deeply divided nation. Perhaps the deepest divisions are those separating black and white Americans. As we’ve shown here, and argue in our paper, the disadvantages and discrimination faced by blacks are not reducible to poverty or economic factors alone. Racial injustice and inequality affect the middle class, too.

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