In his jobs speech earlier this month, President Barack Obama spoke eloquently of a time when Americans felt that hard work invariably paid off. We "believed in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share."
I'm not convinced that most black Americans ever really felt that way. Many of us instead were convinced that the deck was stacked against us, that no matter how hard we worked, we would never get a fair shake. But even in the midst of our deepest despair, we were hopeful for our children. We believed that, whatever we had to go through, life would be better for those who followed.
A major new study has dashed a bucket of cold water on that dream. The report, by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, points out that a third of Americans who are born in the middle class (defined by Pew as those between the 30th and 70th percentiles of the income distribution) lose their middle-class status as adults.
The news for blacks is especially bad, particularly for black men. "White, black and Hispanic women are equally likely to experience downward mobility out of the middle class, but 38 percent of black men fall out, compared with 21 percent of white men," said Pew in its report (pdf), entitled Downward Mobility From the Middle Class: Waking Up From the American Dream.
This is not the first time that Pew has raised the alarm about downward mobility. In a groundbreaking 2007 report (pdf), Pew noted that blacks have an especially difficult time holding on to middle-class status beyond one generation.
"African Americans are more likely to make less than their parents and are more likely to fall down the income ladder than whites — almost half of children born to middle-income African-American families fall to the bottom of the income ladder as adults," concluded Pew in that earlier study.
Both studies wrestle with the question of why blacks are so vulnerable. In 2007 Pew noted that interracial differences in education, wealth and family background could be the culprits. And indeed, a large and growing body of research points to lack of intergenerational wealth as one big reason the black middle class is so fragile.
In this new study, Pew points out that drug use, divorce and low scores on standardized tests also negatively affect mobility.
Many African Americans apparently are not very concerned about the trends. In January of last year, Pew released a survey that found blacks were more optimistic about black progress than at any time in the past quarter century: "More than half (53 percent) say that life for blacks in the future will be better than it is now, while just 10 percent say it will be worse."
A Washington Post poll released early this year found the same sense of optimism. Sixty percent of blacks (compared with 56 percent of Hispanics and only 36 percent of whites) thought their kids would be better off economically than they were. One reason, of course, is that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be poor. And those who are born poor are more likely than not to exceed the earnings of their parents, whatever their race. But we now know that is emphatically not true of blacks born to middle-class parents.
The Pew and Washington Post surveys did not look specifically at middle-class households. In researching my most recent book, I did survey two middle-class groups: alumni of A Better Chance (ABC, a program that sends students, generally poor, to selective high schools) and the black alumni of Harvard Business School. I found that 67 percent of my ABC respondents expected the next black generation to be more upwardly mobile than they were — despite the fact that their average annual household income was roughly $100,000.
The Harvard MBAs were nearly as upbeat. Some 56 percent (and these respondents reported an average household income well over $200,000 a year) thought the next generation would have a higher standard of living.
Some months ago, I asked Harvard Business School professor David Thomas to explain the upbeat attitudes. He called them "irrational" though understandable in light of the delirium around Obama's election.
That delirium seems to be ebbing. Recent polls reports that his black support, though still high, is slipping. We may be more willing to face the reality that Obama's election, whatever it signified, is not likely to change black folks' economic prospects anytime soon.
Even if Obama's new job proposals pass (and I believe they should), they will not fundamentally change the fact that blacks remain uniquely vulnerable. Nor will they reverse trends, now apparent for some time, that have made America into a downwardly mobile nation. That will require a larger social transformation than this president — or any president — can deliver. It nonetheless is one of the most important challenges we face.
Ellis Cose is the author of several books, including The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care? and The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage. He was recently the subject of an In Depth profile and interview on C-SPAN.