Is the Intergenerational Mobility Gap Environmental?


Researchers have just published a new paper about intergenerational mobility among American children. The basic question is whether children generally end up with higher or lower incomes than their parents. This study found that at nearly every income level, black kids are likely to do worse than their parents, and far worse than similar white kids.The black-white gap is almost entirely among men. On a wide variety of measures—wages, college education, etc.—black and white women have similar levels of intergenerational mobility.

                             INTERGENERATIONAL MOBILITY BY RACE

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Every parent wants his or her children to fare better than themselves. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen    . Among families with similar incomes, family characteristics such as marital status, education, and wealth explain very little of the black-white income gap.  The same is true for differences in ability.

  • The gap is mostly environmental: Boys who grow up in certain neighborhoods—those with low poverty rates, low levels of racial bias among whites, and high rates of father presence among low-income blacks—show much smaller gaps. Black boys who move to such areas at younger ages have significantly better outcomes, demonstrating that racial disparities can be narrowed through changes in environment.

As a result of this research, the researchers suggest that interventions aimed at improving the conditions of a single generation won’t be very effective. The same is true of policies that focus on reducing patterns of residential segregation. The key is achieving racial integration within neighborhoods, not gentrify, push people out and make new communities. According to the researchers,

Our results suggest that efforts that cut within neighborhoods and schools and improve environments for specific racial subgroups, such as black boys, may be more effective in reducing the black-white gap. Examples include mentoring programs for black boys, efforts to reduce racial bias among whites, or efforts to facilitate social interaction across racial groups within a given area.

This paper should give ammunition to everyone. Some will point to the better results in neighborhoods where fathers stay around. Others will point to the better results in neighborhoods with low poverty rates. In theory, everyone will agree that reducing racism and improving social interaction between blacks and whites is an extremely important component necessary to see an improved societal climate. Culture, dominant and everyone’s specific familial cultures within the larger society, must allow room for these differences and respectfully function under a commonly and equitably accessible democratic framework. In short, black kids, in particular, mustn’t be held to a separate set of rules and perceptions which ultimately will negatively impact their life outcomes. They are seen through a completely different lens and that is the lens which often will determine their fate and ability to successfully navigate the education system, the world of work and determine their life success.

Referring to these statistics as a future success indicator, it seems totally rational that many young boys of color give up on pursuing the conventional path. What too often follows is that they will disengage and disrupt in their earliest years of life. We still have to examine our definition of disruption through a wider and culturally sensitive lens, and examine in honest self reflection our role in furthering them along either a path or pipeline.  The options that are visible and viable to them do not make following ‘our’ narrowly decided pathways to upward mobility worth their effort.

It is far more safe, in their eyes, to stop trying our way, which is insensitive to their environment and cultural barriers and pursue wealth, status and living wages from an underground economy. That economy, although structured as businesses framed under an organizational model, thrives via dangerous,  illegal activities. Though we deem them chaotic,these activities have a certain sustainability in the absence of alternatives promoted, supported, encouraged and present in their communities.

The world around them is the world they know-it’s tangible and concretely defined. With that said, there is an unforgivable lack of opportunity and access to socially productive pathways. What the research shows and what we all know to be true is that in most low income communities, no real investments are made. There is a tremendous lack of opportunities to experience through vicarious observations and a serious lack of role models who demonstrate these alternative solutions to mobility. There is undoubtedly little to no integration, but great segregation in most, not some or a few communities.

Those professionals who frequent or regularly engage with these communities aren’t actively engaging them outside the classroom. This makes schools feel foreign and far removed settings that aren’t providing more realism for the students. We might conclude that boys are more concrete thinkers, in that imaginations aren’t enough to stimulate their motivation; they need more visuals and authentic engagement. For many careers, we similarly know that in poor communities, there is not a wide variety represented, and the professionals they see are not investing the time to engage them up close and personal. Again, this makes their life choices and pathways toward upward mobility seem limited and remote.

As long as their perceived and real opportunities to live, earn and succeed alongside their white counterparts looks remote, there will never be enough prisons to hold them, nor will there be laws strict enough to have them cease the activities that we say we loathe, and wish to curtail or redirect positively.

Society has been structured, designed and guided by many principles and practices which have persisted for many generations, in such a way that our psyches and collective mindsets have adopted, and internalized impropriety and separation. It, the original rules of engagement, has become so deeply woven into our conscious minds , that we are almost blind to evidence of inequality.Collectively, when hearing cries of inequity, our consciences aren’t alarmed.

With this reality on one side,  the internalization of the rules reinforced by experiences lived by the other side, means that we must be deliberate and lead the way to positive changes that characterize a more level playing field. Where we start matters, but matters less if the game is fair. Equal opportunity must be supported by a system-designed for non-discriminatory practices. That includes salary and access to employment, advancement and upward mobility. Why is it that it is easier for black youth over 18 to receive welfare[public assistance] than a job?

Those youth who make the ‘successful’ transition from high school to college or  career, will either earn less than their counterparts and/or fall back into a life of poverty at faster rates and deeper levels than their parents. This is a call of duty to enhance quality of life for individuals and whole communities and embody systemic approaches to change needed to ensure better outcomes for young black boys in this country. We aren’t to favor one group over another, but rather we must be critically aware of the factors that exist as inequity and mitigate potential and existing damages that will derail lives of the most vulnerable.

The group most harmed are the traditionally disenfranchised and unfairly at risk African-American males, their families and whole communities. Upward mobility should exist as a concrete possibility for all and should be determined by skill and hard work and not social circumstance or skin color.

Making right the wrongs that have have served as barriers and unnecessary obstacles to the American Dream have crippled and stifled lives of citizens who deserve the chance and consideration to succeed is not on them but is a societal responsibility. We must cease blaming the victim for circumstances for which they did not create nor perpetuate. The system must change first, and their lives will change accordingly. Slavery has ended, yet there are some who remain prey to  new more sophisticated forms of this practice. Everyone should be equally free to succeed as they are free to fail-their choice and our societal duty is to give them that freedom.

Holding prejudices and biases is a personal decision, and as such should not impact or influence systemic policy. Our Constitution must be adhered to in all situations, not when convenient to disregard, reinterpret or misinterpret. Otherwise it is we who are disobey the law, not those whom we choose to ignore through the eyes of the law. If we believe in a ‘bootstrap’ perspective, then offer more ‘boots’.

Boys in particular, in certain communities, need more evidence of life possibilities and compassionate individuals, agencies, organizations and neighbors to serve as role models and show them the pathways to mobility. They need mentors, yes, but they also need for us to invest in them and thus, invest in schools in their community, too. So, is it where you live that matters? If we place before them greater accessibility to people, things and places which demonstrate and support success, they may be better equipped to improve their lives, change their life trajectory and strengthen communities from within.

We, ultimately want black boys, along side other children, to become productive citizens who achieve career goals, increase their earning potential and pay it forward right where they live.They need for us to support the changes which align with their re-imagined life success and build better communities. We can promote positive and sustainable career choices, strengthen communities and decrease all mobility gaps. We can help them earn and fare better than their parents, too.

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