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Jul. 2 2010 - 11:08 am | 480 views | 1 recommendation | 9 comments

America is the land of opportunity, but only for white children

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Maybe you didn’t need research to tell you this fact about America: if you’re born poor, you’re likely to stay that way.

New research out of the Urban Institute confirms it. But what it also reveals is a very different future path for white children that are born poor, compared with black children.

The data comes from Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan, who used a longitudinal study that documented kids from 1968 to 2005, taking note of family income levels throughout childhood and into adulthood.What they found illustrates the huge gulf between being born white and being born black in this country.

If you’re born poor and white, there’s a 31 percent chance you will be poor as an adult. Not great, for sure. A third of all poor white children end up being poor white adults, while the other two thirds seem to escape.

And for black children? It’s the reverse. Over two-thirds of black children – 69 percent – are born poor and end up being poor adults.

Black children, the study shows, are 2.5 times more likely than white children to ever be poor. They’re seven times more likely to spend more than half of their childhood years in poverty. And the longer a kid spends in poverty, the worse their adult lives are going to be. High school drop out rates, adult poverty rates, unsteady employment, and teen nonmarital births go up with the number of years a kid spends in poverty. That means a new generation of black children, born into the same circumstances their parents could not escape.

The difference between being born black and being born white in America could not be more stark. And, yet, I feel most of us have stopped caring. We’ve created justifications for why this is so, and those justifications let us off the hook.

I can’t help but think of John Rawls’s  idea of the veil of ignorance - the idea that society’s roles were completely redistributed, and you had no idea which side you would end up on. You have no idea whether you or your child will be born white or black, able to escape the grip of poverty or consistently pulled down by it. As Rawls said, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

That’s the only way to consider the morality of an issue, says Rawls. Until you consider that something had an equally likely chance of happening to you as to someone else, we can’t really fairly consider how we’ve set things up.

Our justifications don’t work under the veil of ignorance because any of the arguments we’ve set up for ourselves – that groups in society are lazy, uneducated, unintelligent, or just don’t want to succeed – are moot. You’re talking about yourself now, so you better hold your tongue.

Imagine your child was growing up in a society today where they had only a one-third chance of making it.

Now, let’s change the way we think, talk and what we’re doing about child poverty.


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  1. collapse expand

    You mean “America is the land of opportunity, but only for white children, Asians, and the children of Hispanic or African immigrants”. That’s setting aside the fact that you’re confusing “opportunity” with “success”.

    There is a huge number of scholarships specifically for black people that are left on the table. The important question isn’t “why are we so mean to black people (not counting black people who are from Africa or are first-generation Americans)” but “what is it about American culture that discourages black HS students?” There are a lot of answers to that difficult question, and even some productive and insightful answers, but you chose to ignore them and instead grapple with a question that hasn’t been relevant for twenty plus years.

    • collapse expand

      Amplifying these remarks, We have known of the gulf between poor Black children and poor children from almost every other ethnicity. Something is missing among the Black community. And though it is politically incorrect to say this, it needs to be said that this gap is a societal failing, not just among the so-called “white” community (which includes many Asians, Europeans, Hispanics, and even African immigrants), but among the descendants of former slaves.

      One element is that the poor of a new immigrant family came to this country to seek a better life. However, the poor of a family descended from slaves, even generations ago, can not seem to pull themselves up from this despair. This is the evil that slavery was (and still is in parts of the world). I do not know how we can break that cycle, but we’re not doing a good job of it now, despite the significant spending that we’ve committed toward this effort.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    don’t even answer voxoctupi, those types don’t deserve our time
    thank you,This was a good article. This concerns everyone now, because we really need to be more productive and plan. The US was able to coast along and ignore problems but we need to think. Time for right thinking, right action is now.

  3. collapse expand

    Prior research has shown poverty is not static. Education is a critical factor in poverty. Education is the ladder out of poverty. And frankly I don’t understand why there isn’t more support for changing city schools. They are a national disgrace.

    • collapse expand

      You can have the best schools in the world plunked in the middle of every inner city neighborhood in America, and you’ll still see a lag. Why? Because until education is embraced by the parents of these kids as their ticket out of poverty and until they enforce the completion of homework and creating an environment in which education is valued, it won’t matter. That’s why the children of other minority populations fare better–because, culturally, education is a high priority, even if those families are also living at the poverty level. Bill Cosby said as much years ago and caught a lot of flack for it, but he’s right. http://www.eightcitiesmap.com/transcript_bc.htm

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

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