One of the most important important socio-economic factors in America is also one of the least talked about: social mobility.
Social mobility is the ability of an individual or family to improve (or lower) their economic status. The two main types of social mobility are intergenerational (i.e., a person is better off than their parents or grandparents) or intragenerational (i.e., income changes within a person or group’s lifetime). While there is no truly adequate gauge to measure such opportunities, we can get a fair estimate based on measurements of social mobility.
And by that measure, African Americans are fairing poorly. The Brookings Institute recently highlighted three disturbing facts about the social mobility of black Americans:
1. Half of Black Americans Born Poor Stay Poor
Upward mobility from the bottom of the income distribution is much less likely for black than white Americans: 51% of the black Americans born into the lowest fifth of the earnings distribution remain there at age 40.
2. Most Black Middle Class Kids Are Downwardly Mobile
Downward intergenerational social mobility from the middle to the bottom is much more common among Black Americans. Seven out of ten black Americans born into the middle quintile fall into one of the two quintiles below as adults.
3. Most Black Families Headed by Single Parent
Black children are much more likely to be raised in a single-parent household, and as our own research suggests, family structure can play a large role in a child’s chance of success in all stages of life.
This last fact is the most distressing since family structure has been shown to be a bigger factor in social mobility than racial segregation, income inequality, school quality, or social capital. As researchers from Harvard found,
[M]obility is signiﬁcantly lower in areas with weaker family structures, as measured e.g. by the fraction of single parents. As with race, parents’ marital status does not matter purely through its eﬀects at the individual level. Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility in communities with fewer single parents. Interestingly, we ﬁnd no correlation between racial shares and upward mobility once we control for the fraction of single parents in an area.
What this means is that children are less likely to move up the economic ladder if they come from a community with a larger percentage of single parents even if their own parents are married.
What this means is that if we want to increase social mobility we have to find a way to reduce the level and impact of single parenthood. That’s no easy task since there is no obvious political solution to the problem. But if we care about the future of America’s children we can start by acknowledging the connection: broken families lead to broken economic ladders for black Americans.