Even Affluent Black Boys Aren’t Safe From the Poverty Trap

It's more common for wealthy African-American boys to become poor than to stay rich in adulthood.

Photo Credit: Rob Hainer / Shutterstock

A new report from the Equality of Opportunity Project (EOP) reveals jarring data about the barriers to wealth placed in front of African Americans. The study says wealthy black boys are unlikely to grow into wealthy black men, despite their financially privileged families.

About two-thirds of Americans maintain the same level or surpass their parents in terms of economic standing, according to the Brookings Institution. But that statistic does not remain the same across racial groups. White boys raised by wealthy families are likely to stay wealthy, the EOP reports. But black boys are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy. “Black and white men have very different outcomes,” the study authors write, “even if they grow up in two-parent families with comparable incomes, education, and wealth; live on the same city block; and attend the same school.”

This is a significant finding, since for years, many have assumed that factors like growing up in single-parent households or poorer neighborhoods with high crime rates are primary factors holding black men back from economic prosperity. But if a white boy and a black boy who grow up under identical circumstances face such different odds, clearly deeper factors are at play.

The study points out that racism directly impacts black boys’ financial success. Black boys who grow up in neighborhoods surrounded by less racially biased white people fare much better (the survey measured implicit and explicit biases among whites across the country to assess this). That trend holds across all regions of the country. “If you look within a single state, black boys do better in the counties that have less racial bias,” a spokesperson for the study told AlterNet.

Another major factor affecting a wealthy black boy’s likelihood of becoming a wealthy adult is the consistent presence of fathers around him. Black children who grow up in wealthier neighborhoods end up richer than those who don’t, but only 4 percent of black children grow up in areas with a poverty rate below 10 percent and more than half of black fathers present.

The New York Times points out that it’s not simply the presence of a father at home that makes the difference for black boys; rather, it’s the presence of grown black men in their community in general. “That is a pathbreaking finding,” William Julius Wilson, a Harvard University sociologist, told the Times. “They’re not talking about the direct effects of a boy’s own parents’ marital status. They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.”

The EOP is clear that this disparity is specific to men alone—no such racial gap exists between black and white girls. The Times points out that “other studies show that boys, across races, are more sensitive than girls to disadvantages like growing up in poverty or facing discrimination.” They also note that across all racial groups, “boys benefit more than girls from adult attention and resources...a variety of studies have found."

The study ties the dire situation of black men’s wealth directly to other areas in which black men struggle: “We find analogous gender differences in other outcomes: black-white gaps in high school completion rates, college attendance rates, and incarceration are all substantially larger for men than for women.”

The generational wealth fallout is a problem particular to the African-American community. The study authors write: “While Hispanic and black Americans presently have comparable incomes, the incomes of Hispanic Americans are increasing steadily across generations.” Upward mobility exists for Latinos in a way it does not for African Americans. According to the EOP study’s executive summary, “black children born to parents in the bottom household income quintile have a 2.5 percent chance of rising to the top quintile of household income, compared with 10.6 percent for whites.”

The Equality of Opportunity Project study confirms what many others already have: that there aren’t many wealthy black boys in the U.S. The study’s aim is to demonstrate that racism is so ingrained in our society that its negative effects on black children defy income brackets.

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Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.