Study: Black Families Struggle to Stay Middle-Class

Michael Fletcher
Washington Post National Economics Reporter
Tuesday, November 13, 2007; 12:00 PM

Washington Post national economics reporter Michael Fletcher was online Tuesday, Nov. 13 at noon ET to examine a new Pew Charitable Trusts study that measures the impacts race and gender have on the ability to maintain income levels from one generation to the next -- something found to be particularly difficult for African Americans.

The transcript follows.


Michael Fletcher: Good afternoon, everyone. Very provocative report released today by Pew about economic mobility in our society. Let's talk about it.


Washington: For blacks who "fell down" the economic ladder since they were children, do the authors of the study know why? Underemployment, single-parent status, what?

Michael Fletcher: They don't know why, at least not precisely. The study wasn't really structured to answer the why. But some of the speculation has to do with the increase in the number of single-parent families, large educational gaps that remain between blacks and whites, the huge wealth gap separating whites and blacks (whites generally have 10 times as much wealth as blacks, even though blacks earn something like 70 cents for every dollar earned by whites). Other ideas are the racial isolation of even many black middle class families, which largely walls them off from social networks that lead to jobs, business opportunities, etc.. Other people have even discussed the "pull" of popular culture which, some say, glamorizes thug life, something that some analysts feel has a disproportionate impact on black young people.


Washington: Thank you for the interesting article. Do you think that discriminatory practices in administering benefits from Federal Housing Administration loan programs and the GI bill had an effect? I was taught that these two programs allowed many families to move into the middle class by opening up access to education and home ownership. If blacks largely were left behind by these two programs, and we are talking about the 1930s and 1940s, wouldn't that make a huge difference? We are only talking about one generation above the baby boomers.

Michael Fletcher: Clearly, the history of discrimination in loan programs, veterans programs and most other aspects of American life has a lot to do with the plight faced by many African Americans today. But the disturbing thing about this Pew study is that it shows that so many black people from families that seemed to be making it, at least economically, a generation ago have fallen backwards. Surely, discrimination has eased (but, I agree, not gone away) since the 1960s. Also, American society is one where for most racial and ethnic groups the best predictor of your economic and educational status will be your parents' economic and educational status. So why are nearly half of blacks who were middle income as kids defying this? That's the troubling question raised by this study.


Jackson, Miss.: I just finished "My Grandfather's Son" by Clarence Thomas. A major theme from that book was that the welfare state and affirmative action have, for blacks, eroded the truly important attributes of success -- namely hard work and educational achievement. What role do you think has the welfare state and affirmative action have had in the declining generational incomes for blacks highlighted in your article?

Michael Fletcher: Very little, from what I can tell. I don't understand how affirmative action undercuts the value of hard work and educational achievement. Is the implication that black people who benefit from affirmative action don't have to do anything to succeed? If so, that's wrong. Meanwhile, the "welfare state," whatever that means, really wouldn't affect the middle class, unless one believes that a meager Aid to Families with Dependent Children payment was more attractive than a paycheck for people who knew what a paycheck was. I find both arguments to be more partisan than substantive.


Santa Monica, Calif.: Can you help me understand the 10-to-1 wealth gap between whites and blacks? What causes such a gap? Is it tied to inheritances? If you just consider whites and blacks with similar incomes, does the gap persist?

Michael Fletcher: Yes, the wealth gap persists even for blacks and whites of similar incomes. The reason has a lot to do with the value of homes and home ownership rates. Homes are typically the largest asset people have. Whites are more likely to own homes than blacks, even though that gap has closed some through the years. Also, almost anywhere I've been at least, homes in white neighborhoods are more valuable than black ones. Here in the D.C. area, it is safe to say that a home in predominantly black Price George's county, a largely middle-class county, would be worth less than an otherwise comparable home in mostly white Northern Virginia, or Montgomery County, Md., which is about two-thirds white. Also, stock ownership rates vary by race, adding to the gap.


Washington: I was astonished that this research left people scratching their heads. Hello, the hip-hop culture? Hello, gangster culture. Hello, 65 percent-plus of black children born into single mother homes, combined with the fact that single parent homes have an 85 percent greater chance of having kid with behavioral problems. Why is it that every time stats like this are quotes, it is called racist and overlooked. It's time to stop using terms like "racism" to hide the problems, and to start doing something.

Michael Fletcher: You are not the first one to raise these points today. The thing is that many of the points you raise are typically associated with the poor, not the middle class. Remember Bill Cosby's rant? But the Pew research shows that some of the problems normally linked to the poor also affect the black "middle class." But also not to be minimized are questions of school funding, opportunities available in different neighborhoods, and a history of racial discrimination which, at minimum, leaves some people with more faith in the American system than others.


Omaha, Neb.: It's not just blacks that are seeing their spending power decrease ... my son and daughter (white) were born in the '60s to college-educated middle-class parents, and they just can't seem to get ahead ... they work hard, make good choices and still can't find decent-paying jobs with benefits like their parents could. Try not to make this declining American economy just a black problem ... look at the bigger picture ... the middle class across the board is disappearing. When you look for blame, look to the choices made by the people with the problems.

Michael Fletcher: Points taken. But despite all the economic anxiety out there--and it is justified given the wrenching changes in the U.S. economy--the Pew study shows that two out of three Americans are moving up the mythical economic ladder. Which makes the finding that nearly half of black folks who were middle class as kids are now falling to the economic bottom all the more perplexing. The corresponding number for whites is under 20 percent. So clearly there is a gap.


Dillwyn, Va.: How much money do you need to make a year in order to be considered middle class? Thanks.

Michael Fletcher: For purposes of this study, the children were considered middle class if they grew up in families who occupied two groups in the middle of the five income quintiles. The salaries ranged from $33,800 to $65,100 in 2004 dollars.


Arlington, Va.: Away from welfare and single-parent effects, where does the effect of drugs (and crime) fit into this comparison of generations ?

Michael Fletcher: They are likely factors in the fall. The crack epidemic, for example,devastated many working-class and even marginally middle class black communities in the 1980s and early 1990s. It seems like the impact was harder in black communities than elsewhere.


Washington: How can you so casually dismiss Bill Crosby's "rant" in your own words, or discount cultural explanations in favor of differences in school funding, neighborhood opportunities, etc.? Especially given that across income levels and school systems, whether you are talking about low-income schools or upper-class suburban ones, numerous studies have found that African American students are over-represented amongst the poorly performing students?

Michael Fletcher: I'm not dismissing Bill Cosby's points. I call it a rant only because of Cosby's argumentative style in presenting them and because he focuses only on the poor with his critique. But clearly the educational achievement gap and influence of street culture are real. It is my observation that many kids, particularly middle-class black kids, mimic what they perceive to be "authentic" black images, whether they see them in the street or on music videos, or wherever.


Silver Spring, Md.: Progress against racism happened just before the middle class stagnated. The de-industrialization of America played a huge part, and our labor unions lacked the class consciousness that unions have in Europe. Illegal immigration certainly is playing a large role. Illegal immigrants are crowding into housing that could have been occupied by working-class or middle-class black homeowners.

Michael Fletcher: I disagree with your point about illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants may (or may not) bid down the price of certain types of labor. But it seems to me that they would increase competition for (and prices for, and value of) homes. It seems that people who grew up in middle-income homes should profit from that competition.


Providence, R.I.: Michael, it seems that the very things that helped create the white middle class -- long-term blue-collar jobs with good health and retirement benefits -- were available to blacks only for a few years before they started disappearing, replaced by service and high-tech companies that provide mostly unstable (read: layoff) employment with much stingier benefits. There are exceptions, but they are few. While this trend has affected all groups, it's understandable that blacks, who got a later start, suffer the most.

Michael Fletcher: That is a good point. It would be interesting to look at some of the lives behind these numbers. My suspicion is you'd find, say, a lot of children of black steel workers or auto workers whose children may not have done great in school and could not find work that was as secure and high paying as what their parents had. Maybe they are more likely to be unmarried. I hope to get into some of that in future reporting.


Washington: Aren't there good reasons why Montgomery County or Fairfax County homes are more expensive than ones in Prince George's County, as you mentioned? Schools, level of violent crime, poverty ... Prince George's County basically is plagued by the same ills that afflict the District and other primarily black cities. Crime leads to disinvestment, which leads to lower property values, which leads to concentrations of poor people, which leads to bad public schools.

Michael Fletcher: There probably are good reasons for that, and some not-so- good reasons as well. Beyond the things you mention, it is also true that there is less business investment in Price George's County (stores, restaurants) and fewer people who consider buying there simply because of race. Remember, there are many beautiful, safe neighborhoods in the county that people will not consider simply because they are in the county.


Arlington, Va.: Do you think the trade agreements and loss of manufacturing jobs influenced the black community more than other middle-class communities ?

Michael Fletcher: My guess would be yes, because I suspect the black middle class was more blue collar than the white middle class.


Accokeek, Md.: My parents, born in the 1930s, achieved the middle-class dream only through sheer hard work, with two or three jobs for my father and my mother working also, and few luxuries in life (no one in my parents' age range took vacations). My siblings and I are only doing well because of college and its benefits and living in a job-rich area like Washington. The lack of a college education and the demise of high-paying unionized factory work in large cities are too heavy a load for many to overcome.

Michael Fletcher: Apparently so. I grew up in a black, middle-class family that was blue collar (my father never finished high school but was a New York City subway conductor, which was a pretty good gig in the day)and we never, ever went out to eat. Stuff like that was considered wasteful. My parents might weep if they saw my restaurant tab now. So they are not unlike your parents in that way. But could a subway conductor achieve middle class life now? Maybe. But it would not be easy, if it ever was.


New York: Have you considered the inequalities still faced by educated African Americans in your research?

Michael Fletcher: The Pew report did not delve into that. But I'd suspect those inequities, even the mere perception of them, are a factor.


Washington: Economically, were urban decay issues addressed in the study, i.e. was African American decline mirroring -- or possibly being driven by -- urban decay around the country? Also, was there any way to track how wealth was used, i.e. was African American wealth invested in something durable, like real estate, or did it go to cost of living, cars, etc.?

Michael Fletcher: Those things were not addressed. The report did not get into the reasons why, it just attempted to document whether or not people were making economic progress relative to their parents. Furthermore, it sought to determine how race and gender factored in.


Michael Fletcher: Thanks for all the interest and the great questions. Gotta run. Hopefully, I'll be back soon.


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