Cover: Examining the Loss of Wealth and Downward Mobility of African Americans

Examining the Loss of Wealth and Downward Mobility of African Americans

A Review of Challenges for the Black Middle Class

Published Dec 7, 2022

by Jessica Welburn Paige

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Research Questions

  1. What does research suggest about the social mobility prospects of African Americans compared with those of white Americans?
  2. What is the impact of factors that contribute to the instability of middle-class African Americans' economic position?

Research on post–Civil Rights era racial progress often points to the growth of the Black middle class as evidence that opportunities for racial minorities in the United States have improved over the past several decades. Yet, even when African Americans reach the middle class, they may have trouble maintaining their position. Several studies have demonstrated that African Americans face disproportionately high downward mobility rates, meaning that Black children who grow up in middle-class households are less likely than white children who grow up in middle-class households to replicate their parents' socioeconomic status.

In this report, part of a discussion paper series investigating the U.S. racial wealth gap, the author provides an overview of research on the intergenerational downward mobility rates of middle-class African Americans. Using various data, the author examines the impact of race, gender, and parental income on adult children's income.

The author then discusses factors that may contribute to the disproportionately high downward mobility rates for African Americans who grow up in middle-class households, such as educational attainment, occupational experiences, neighborhood circumstances, wealth, persistent racism and discrimination, and economic recessions. Research findings suggest that the combined impact of such factors perpetuates the instability of middle-class African Americans and the racial wealth gap.

Key Findings

  • The complex and interconnected obstacles that confront middle-class African Americans show that middle-class status does not provide the same level of protection to them as it does to white Americans.
  • Overall, African Americans — even those who grow up in middle-class households — are more likely than white Americans to move down the socioeconomic spectrum as adults, while white Americans are more likely to move up the socioeconomic spectrum.
  • Several interconnected factors create obstacles for middle-class African Americans, contributing to disproportionately high downward mobility rates. These factors include the racial wealth gap, housing and neighborhood circumstances, educational and occupational attainment, and persistent racism and discrimination.
  • The persistence of racial inequalities suggests that policy actions taken to date have not narrowed the wealth gap, and a more significant intervention may be needed to make lasting change.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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