Brookings recently published a they-owe-the-public-better report on income inequality. One of the report’s headline conclusions shows, without any qualification, that growing up African American and poor (bottom quintile of earnings) is worse, from an expected earnings perspective, than growing up white and poor. See the chart below.
While that may be true, a fairer way to measure whether America treats races differently is to factor out traits they have in common—chiefly, marital and educational status (the traits chosen by Brookings). Differences in racial treatment are best compared holding these other significant factors constant. Being African American per se may not make a person poor; rather, being raised by an unmarried parent and failing to graduate from school may make a person poor.
Unfortunately, the report doesn’t present its evidence that fairly. Nevertheless, readers can draw perspectives from the report.
According to Brookings’ evidence, for example, if poor married parents raise a child, the child has a near-even chance of ending up in any of the five income quintiles—what the author describes as “an opportunity utopia.” Married parents raise their child’s expected earnings two quintiles over children raised by a never-married parent (using the income distribution in the Brookings report).
Surely, marriage is correlated to other traits—traits that may leave their families in poverty for example. But the fact that marriage has the same two-quintile effect on middle class children indicates that marriage itself likely has a significant effect on success.
Similarly, graduating from college raises a person’s expected earnings about one quintile over a person who graduated from high school only and two-and-a-half quintiles over a person who did not complete high school, regardless of whether the person comes from a poor or middle-class family. Again, successfully completing college surely indicates innate traits like intelligence and conscientiousness that contribute to success, but these traits seem to have similar benefits for poor and middle-class children.
It’s clear from the evidence: what overwhelmingly makes a person poor, whether African American or white, is an inability or failure to complete school and being raised by an unmarried parent. If racism has additional effects, Brookings chose not to reveal it.
With the possibility of racism removed, the Brookings’ data show poor white children have a near-equal opportunity to advance to any level of income. Surely, these poor children also have lower graduation rates and higher incidences of unmarried parents than other children. Taking these factors into account, it’s hard to see income having much effect on mobility from the evidence Brookings presents.