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Down and Out, 2014
- [L]eaving home is hard, and the social distance of wealth makes it even harder.
- The difference for ordinary black Americans, as opposed to NFL stars, is that this has been a powerful driver of downward mobility. Just a quick comparison of black and white neighborhoods is enough to illustrate the particular challenges that face black families as they reach for middle class, or try to keep their position. The key fact is this: Even after you adjust for income and education, black Americans are more likely than any other group to live in neighborhoods with substantial pockets of poverty.
- [B]lack Americans live with a level of poverty that is simply unknown to the vast majority of whites. It’s tempting to attribute this to the income disparity between blacks and whites. Since blacks are more likely to be poor, it stands to reason that they’re more likely to live in poor neighborhoods. But the fact of large-scale neighborhood poverty holds true for higher-income black Americans as well. Middle-class blacks are far more likely than middle-class whites to live in areas with significant amounts of poverty. Among today’s cohort of middle- and upper-class blacks, about half were raised in neighborhoods of at least 20 percent poverty. Only 1 percent of today’s middle- and upper-class whites can say the same. In short, if you took two children—one white, one black—and gave them parents with similar jobs, similar educations, and similar values, the black child would be much more likely to grow up in a neighborhood with higher poverty, worse schools, and more violence. This is an outright disaster for income mobility. Given their circumstances, blacks face a reversal of their gains over the last generation. Simply put, the persistence of poor neighborhoods is a fact of life for the large majority of blacks; it’s been transmitted from one generation to the next, and shows little sign of changing.
- All of which raises an obvious question: Why do blacks have a hard time leaving impoverished neighborhoods? [...] Once you grasp the staggering differences between black and white neighborhoods, it becomes much easier to explain a whole realm of phenomena. Take the achievement gap between middle-class black students and their white peers. It’s easy to look at this and jump to cultural explanations—that this is a function of black culture and not income or wealth. But, when we say middle-class black kids are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, what we’re also saying is that they’re less likely to have social networks with professionals, and more likely to be exposed to violence and crime. This can have serious consequences. Youthful experimentation for a white teenager in a suburb might be smoking a joint in a friend’s attic. Youthful experimentation for a black teenager might be hanging out with gang members.
- DeSean Jackson is still an NFL player, and—as a player for Washington, D.C.’s professional football team—will make a tremendous amount of money. He can keep his connections to his friends, he can live in the same neighborhood, if he wants, and downward mobility won’t be a pressing concern. For millions of more ordinary black Americans, however, the opposite is true. Even with more income and more education, they’re stuck in segregated neighborhoods. Yes, there isn’t much mobility for anyone, but that fact is especially true for blacks. Indeed, when someone says that America has a “racial hierarchy,” this is what they mean: Whether times are good or bad, blacks remain at the bottom.