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