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The massive new study on race and economic mobility in America, explained

Even black men born to wealthy families are less economically successful than white men.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Black Americans experience dramatically lower upward mobility than white Americans do — a difference that appears to be driven largely by significant economic disadvantages among black men.

These conclusions come from a groundbreaking study combining Census Bureau data on race with IRS tax returns, which allow economists to track individuals’ earnings over many years and tie them to their parents’ earnings. The first paper to combine census race data and tax records was released by the Census Bureau’s Maggie Jones and Sonya Porter and UCLA’s Randall Akee last year. Now Jones and Porter have extended that work in collaboration with Stanford’s Raj Chetty and Harvard’s Nathaniel Hendren, and tied their findings to parental tax records, enabling an intergenerational comparison spanning from 1989 to 2015.

The researchers teamed up with the New York Times’s Upshot and produced some incredible charts and graphics showing off the data, which you should check out. Here are a few major takeaways from the new research.

Black Americans and American Indians in well-off families are much likelier to fall behind than white kids

One of the main purposes of the study is to compare intergenerational mobility — that is, the degree to which children exceed, or fall behind, their parents economically — across different racial groups.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they find that downward mobility is much higher among black Americans and American Indians than among white, Hispanic, or Asian Americans. White children whose parents are in the top fifth of the income distribution have a 41.1 percent chance of staying there as adults; for Hispanic children, the rate is 30.6 percent, and for Asian-American children, 49.9 percent. But for black children, it’s only 18 percent, and for American Indian children only 23 percent.

Indeed, black and American Indian children born into upper- or upper-middle-class families are nearly as likely to fall to the bottom fifth of the income distribution as to stay in the top fifth.

Conversely, upward mobility for children born into the bottom fifth of the distribution is markedly higher among whites than among black or American Indian children. Among children who grew up in the bottom fifth of the distribution, 10.6 percent of whites make it into the top fifth of household incomes themselves, as do 25.5 percent of Asian-Americans. By contrast, only 7.1 percent of Hispanic children born in the bottom fifth make it to the top fifth, along with 3.3 percent of American Indian children and a tiny 2.5 percent of black children.

These numbers necessarily hide a great deal of variation within each ethnic/racial categories: between black children of immigrants and black children of native-born Americans; between Mexican Americans and Salvadoran Americans and Dominican Americans, etc.; and between Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans and Vietnamese Americans, etc.

Black men enjoy much less mobility than white men, but the gap between black and white women is small

This is perhaps the most striking, and certainly the most controversial, finding of the study. Black Americans’ disadvantage on mobility relative to whites, the researchers conclude, is entirely driven by a disadvantage between black and white men:

Mobility among white and black men Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

No matter what their parents’ income level, black men do worse than white men on average. Black men born into families at the 75th percentile of the income distribution wind up, on average, 12 percentiles below white men born into equally affluent families. When you consider that there are far fewer black families at the top of the income distribution than white families, the inequities showcased here become even starker.

But the same does not hold for black women:

Mobility for black and white women Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

The researchers find that, conditional on their parents’ income, black women actually outperform white women in terms of individual earnings.

Let me be very clear: This does not mean there is no income gap between white and black women. There very much is. In 2016, white women working full time and all year earned $57,559 on average compared to $45,261 for black women working full time, according to Census data. This chart does not show that the gap has somehow been closed or that black women aren’t disadvantaged economically.

But it appears, based on this new analysis, that the massive gap between black and white women’s salaries can be explained by differences in family background:

Distribution of parental incomes Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

In other words, the fact that fewer black women grow up in affluent families accounts for the ongoing inequality between white and black women’s wages. Black and white women born into equivalently wealthy families enjoy basically the same economic outcomes.

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that white women are likelier to stay home, and work fewer hours, than black women. If that’s the case, then it would imply that if black and white women worked at similar rates, a gap would open up similar to the one seen among men.

The data, however, doesn’t bear out this interpretation. Black women only work at modestly higher rates, and work slightly more hours, than white women — nowhere near large enough to explain the lack of a gap in income-conditional-on-parental-income:

Employment rates for black and white women, conditional on parents’ income Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018
Hours worked by black and white women Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

And as you’d probably expect, white women enjoy slightly higher wages than black women coming from equally wealthy households:

Wage rates among black and white women Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

But overall, the differences aren’t huge.

By contrast, none of those variables are similar for black and white men, conditional on their parents’ income. Regardless of their parents’ earnings, black men on average worked fewer hours, earned lower wages, and were less likely to work than white men, period:

Hours worked by black and white men, by parents’ income Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018
Wages earned by black and white men, by parents’ income Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018
Employment rates for black and white men, conditional on family income Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

This finding has already provoked considerable controversy, especially within black academic circles. The study brings to mind, for some, the Moynihan Report of 1965. That report, issued by policy analyst and future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and widely decried as racist by many sociologists for its characterization of the black family as pathological and dysfunctional, was also, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing that black men should be empowered at the expense of black women.”

The numbers above could be read (misread, in my opinion) as implying the same: that policy solutions need to be tailored to help black men but not black women. Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, who was quoted in the Times’s initial write-up of the study, took to Twitter to add, “We should not focus our antiracist policies on black boys and yet again neglect black girls on the basis of racist ideas that black girls are strong (and black boys are weak). We must not let this study become the new Moynihan report.”

“I am super super super super super super super tired of the way sociological data is used to reify the myth that Black women are superhuman,” the historian and philosopher of science Chanda Prescod-Weinstein wrote.

The findings emphatically do not show that black women are not discriminated against. The fact that a far greater share of black women grow up in economic disadvantage than white women is itself a product of discrimination. Black women also face outsize rates of school suspension, imprisonment, and police violence compared to white women.

What the new paper does suggest is that black women’s gaps in educational attainment and imprisonment relative to white women are somewhat smaller than the equivalent gaps for black men relative to white men. The authors argue this might partially account for the large gap in mobility between black and white men, and the absence of such a gap between black and white women.

“Black-white gaps in high-school dropout rates, college attendance rates, occupation, and incarceration are all substantially larger for men than for women,” the authors write. “Black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, conditional on parental income.”

But the gap still isn’t fully explained, and more research on the question is needed. “I think this [the male-female gap] is the key question to be focusing on, as it rules out many theories that wouldn’t obviously differ by gender,” Chetty writes in an email.

The black-white income gap isn’t about genes or family structure

At the same time, the gender asymmetry found in the paper serves to rebut a remarkably persistent racist trope: that the black-white income gap is due to an innate gap in ability, rather than discrimination or other environmental factors.

This theory, spread most successfully in recent decades by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their infamous book The Bell Curve, contends that black Americans are on average less intelligent than white Americans, and that this gap is most likely genetic in origin. That, Herrnstein and Murray argued, largely explains the persistence of the black-white income gap in the US, and implies that policies aimed at closing it, like increased government investments in black neighborhoods or affirmative action or even reparations, would be ineffective. It’s a clearly racist idea, but one with remarkable staying power on the American right.

And it’s an idea that’s extremely difficult to reconcile with this study’s finding that black women born into equivalently affluent families earn the same amount as white women, while black men do not. Black men and black women, after all, have very similar genetics. So genetic factors cannot explain why black men experience a mobility gap relative to white men while black women do not.

“In my humble opinion, these results put an empirical nail in the coffin of The Bell Curve,” Harvard economist David Deming tweeted after the study was released.

The study also helps debunk the social conservative theory that lower marriage rates and higher levels of single parenthood among black Americans are largely responsible for the black-white income gap.

The authors measure the income of both black and white Americans conditional on their family structure and find that a huge gap in income persists, even if you’re looking at only children of single parents or of two-parent households.

Put another way: Even black children raised by two parents experience a massive gap in earnings relative to whites:

Racial gap among children of one and two-parent households Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

The racial gap in incarceration is enormous

While black women are incarcerated at about twice the rate of white women, incarceration rates for women are exceptionally low relative to rates for men, regardless of race.

Among men, however, there is both a large gap between men who grew up in rich or poor families and a huge related gap between black and white men, even those who grew up in equivalently wealthy families:

Incarceration among black and white men and women Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter 2018

Children born to poorer parents are far, far likelier to find themselves in prison than children born to richer parents. But at each point in the distribution, black children are likelier to be incarcerated than white children — even if their parents are millionaires.

“21 percent of black men raised at the very bottom were incarcerated, according to a snapshot of a single day during the 2010 census,” the New York Times’s Emily Badger, Claire Cain Miller, Adam Pearce, and Kevin Quealy write in their piece examining the data. “Black men raised in the top 1 percent — by millionaires — were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000.”

This goes some ways in explaining the unique disadvantage experienced by black men of all family backgrounds, but only some of the way. In a footnote, the authors note that “the income gap remains substantial even among children in the highest-income families, for whom incarceration rates are much lower in absolute terms. Incarceration also cannot explain the sharp disparities observed in outcomes at younger ages, such as high school dropout rates.”

Good neighborhoods help, but only a little, and there aren’t many

Chetty and Hendren have had a longstanding interest in the effect of local neighborhoods on social mobility. Previous work of theirs (along with Berkeley’s Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez) has documented massive inequality in mobility rates based on the geographic areas that people are born in. Along with Harvard’s Lawrence Katz, they’ve found that federal subsidies designed to move poor families out of disadvantaged areas can substantially increase income for poor children when they grow up.

So do good neighborhoods negate some of this inequality in social mobility? A bit, but not much. The researchers find that black boys have lower rates of upward mobility than white boys in a whopping 99 percent of census tracts (a small geographic division containing about 4,250 people each on average). There just aren’t many, if any, geographic areas where outcomes for black and white boys are equivalent.

But the gap between the two actually expands in “good” areas with low poverty rates and a large number of college grads. “Intuitively, both black and white boys have higher incomes in low-poverty areas, but the effect of growing up in a low-poverty area is larger for whites than blacks,” they write. “As a result, black-white gaps are larger in low-poverty neighborhoods than in high-poverty neighborhoods.”

There are areas, they find, where the gap between white and black boys’ outcomes is smaller than usual. Regions with lower poverty, a higher fraction of low-income black fathers present (rather than incarcerated, deceased, or living elsewhere), and lower levels of measured racial animus among whites tend to have smaller gaps and better outcomes for black students.

And they emphasize that black children who move to areas that feature higher mobility for black kids enjoy higher incomes and lower incarceration rates as adults. The problem isn’t insoluble, but there is a major gap between neighborhoods that black and white children live in, and closing that gap would help black kids.

“The challenge is that very few black children currently grow up in environments that foster upward mobility,” Chetty and Hendren write in an accompanying summary document. “Fewer than 5 percent of black children currently grow up in areas with a poverty rate below 10 percent and more than half of black fathers present. In contrast, 63 percent of white children grow up in areas with analogous conditions.”