In America, economic inequality and racial inequality are hard to disentangle.
The huge income gap between white and black Americans is well known – but is it a function of where people are most likely to start off in life (and therefore America’s low level of social mobility), or are black Americans more likely to earn less regardless of which income group they’re born into?
A new study led by researchers from Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau presents compelling evidence that the latter is true.
In a special feature for the New York Times, Emily Badger and her colleagues delve into the study’s key findings:
“White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.
“Even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America. And the gaps only worsen in the kind of neighborhoods that promise low poverty and good schools.”
It’s worth reiterating that last point – the ‘better’ the neighbourhood, the more unequal the outcomes for the children who grow up there.
What’s truly striking about the income gap is that all of it is accounted for by the difference in outcomes between black and white males:
“Though black girls and women face deep inequality on many measures, black and white girls from families with comparable earnings attain similar individual incomes as adults.”
According to the stunning graphics that accompany the article, black women actually do slightly better than their white counterparts.
This is rather inconvenient for those who’d ascribe unequal outcomes to unequal abilities:
“The disparities that remain also can’t be explained by differences in cognitive ability, an argument made by people who cite racial gaps in test scores that appear for both black boys and girls. If such inherent differences existed by race, ‘you’ve got to explain to me why these putative ability differences aren’t handicapping women,’ said David Grusky, a Stanford sociologist who has reviewed the research.
“A more likely possibility, the authors suggest, is that test scores don’t accurately measure the abilities of black children in the first place.”
So is racial discrimination the main factor? If it is, then it has to be in a form that falls more heavily on black men than black women – and black men much more than most other ethnic minorities (for whom the income gap with white Americans is either narrower or non-existent).
There were a few neighbourhoods where the black-white gap in life chances is much narrower than the norm. Is this random variation or is there anything else distinctive about these areas?
The research shows that they “showed less discrimination in surveys and tests of racial bias” and “mostly had low poverty rates”, but the most significant finding had to do with fatherhood:
“…these pockets — including parts of the Maryland suburbs of Washington, and corners of Queens and the Bronx — were the places where many lower-income black children had fathers at home. Poor black boys did well in such places, whether their own fathers were present or not.
“‘That is a pathbreaking finding,’ said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist whose books have chronicled the economic struggles of black men. ‘They’re not talking about the direct effects of a boy’s own parents’ marital status. They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.’”
Fathers aren’t just good for their own families they can also provide boys in other families with “role models and mentors”.
To me, this is further evidence for an argument that I made in another context, which is that family formation isn’t just about private life, it also forms culture – and shapes life outcomes across entire communities.
To raise issues like family and fatherhood is not to dismiss the impact of racial or economic inequality on life outcomes. On the contrary, it is saying that when young people face unfairness and discrimination, they need all the help they can get – starting with what is the first and most important of all support structures.