Probing the Source of White-Black Economic Divide

Photo (cc) by The Kufi Smacker

Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be poor. That’s a fact. But why that’s the case is unfortunately not an easy question to answer.

One side of the debate is represented by conservatives such as Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, who maintain that individual effort and responsibility are essential to fighting poverty for black Americans, while downplaying the impact of historic and ongoing racial discrimination in the United States.

They often tout a 2009 Brookings report that found that just 2 percent of American adults live in poverty if they reach three landmarks: complete high school, work full time, and wait until age 21 to marry and have children. It’s often called the “success sequence.” The 2009 report said that nearly three-quarters of those who followed these “norms” made it to the middle class, earning more than 300 percent of the poverty level.

Although that 1-2-3 success sequence plan sounds good in theory, new research by Brookings Institution researchers Richard Reeves, Edward Rodrigue and Alex Gold said it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all solution.

“The bottom line is that even when black Americans do follow all three norms, their economic prospects are worse than whites,” the authors write.

Their research found that while 73 percent of whites who follow all three norms are earning incomes above 300 percent of the federal poverty line for their household size, just 59 percent of blacks can say the same.

“In almost every city we examined, the proportion of blacks who follow all the norms that reach the middle class is well below the proportion of white norm-adherents who do so, often by 10 percentage points or more,” the researchers wrote.

Gold, Rodrigue and Reeves said new norms, like some postsecondary education, planning for a child before having one and access to work support and training programs for workers if the economy takes a downturn, are needed to fit the changing times.

But even then, “Black Americans who meet traditional markers on the pathway to the American Dream are still less likely to get there than white Americans,” the Brookings researchers wrote. “Until we break the structural barriers that keep black Americans from reaping the benefits of their individual responsibility, arguments about why some don’t follow norms risk being beside the point.”

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