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Black Baby Boomers' Income Gap Cited

Study Says That, Economically, Generation Has Not Improved Over Its Parents'

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page A02

Forty years after the end of the baby boom, black Americans born between 1946 and 1964 "are no better off relative to whites than their parents and grandparents" were in terms of income, according to a new Duke University study.

Black baby boomers are still earning about 66 percent of what their non-Hispanic white age peers earn, Duke sociology professors Angela M. O'Rand and Mary Elizabeth Hughes wrote in "The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers," which was released Wednesday. That is about equal to the income earned by foreign-born Hispanics, O'Rand and Hughes said.

Black baby boomers did not close the income gap, even though they were the first generation to come of age after the civil rights era, the researchers said.

"African Americans have made their way more into the middle class than before," Hughes said in an interview. "But when you look across the board, you don't see the type of equality Americans would like to see. It suggests there are very deep root causes here, not one-answer causes."

One cause is education, O'Rand said. African Americans who came of age in the Jazz Age (1916-25) graduated from college at about the same rate as white Americans, according to the study, which was funded by $15,000 from the Russell Sage Foundation in New York and the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. But the graduation rate for African Americans peaked around the mid-1950s.

"That coincides with changes in the education system," O'Rand said. "You had integration and then a re-segregation that follows because of [white migration to the suburbs] and the rise of private schooling."

Roderick J. Harrison, a demographer for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington who was not affiliated with the study, said the study also identified lower college graduation rates, which compounded the income disparities because fewer African Americans met on campus, married and brought home two incomes.

That factor, in Harrison's view, also contributed significantly to the income inequalities. "The family issue is much more important than the attention [O'Rand and Hughes] gave to it," Harrison said. "The difference in marital rates will be hard to overcome."

The post-World War II baby boom came during a pivotal period in U.S. history, when the economy boomed, television replaced radio as the dominant medium, and home builders embarked on a radical new venture called the suburbs. The surge in births ended in 1964, a year after the March on Washington for civil rights.

The Duke study asserts that the baby boom generation is far more diverse than it appeared on such '50s television icons as "The Mickey Mouse Club" and "Leave It to Beaver." Nearly 30 percent of those the study identified as "late" baby boomers -- born after 1955 -- were minorities; in the Depression era, about 16 percent were.

However, that group came of age during a time of great change in the U.S. labor market, the study said. In the early 1970s, the automotive industry -- which had employed so many African Americans as they moved from South to North -- started cutting its workforce.

"In the late '50s and in the '60s, a man of any race could earn a family wage without a high school education," Hughes said. "But that wasn't true anymore. . . . Late boomers came of age in a very difficult labor market. The civil rights protections had a tough row to hoe."

The study found that non-Hispanic white "early" boomers earned a median of almost $25,000 in 1989 dollars. U.S.-born Hispanic early boomers earned about 80 percent of that, the study found, but U.S.-born Asian early boomers earned almost $30,000.

"Asians completed college at much higher rates," Hughes said. "Foreign-born Asians come in with higher education levels than the U.S.-born population. U.S.-born Asians attain higher levels of education than all groups."

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