The American Dream: What are the real chances?



I’m friends with two couples who each have a son, one white and one black. The families’ economic circumstances are basically the same. Like virtually all parents, both care deeply about their child’s welfare and future. We should expect, with all things being equal, that both families would see similarly bright prospects for their children. After all, the American Dream is built upon the idea of upward mobility based solely on hard work, regardless of race. But in reality, what are the chances for the black son and the white son to lead equally prosperous lives? More generally, what are the chances for black boys and white boys in our country to grow up healthy and thrive? A recent landmark study that examines incomes among blacks and whites paints a picture distinctly at odds with our American Dream, with significant health implications for our nation.

Embedded in the American Dream are assumptions about how society is structured to offer everyone a fair chance. If black and white children start out in the same circumstances, the Dream leads us to expect they will have the same chances of success or failure – if they grow up wealthy they have the same chances of being wealthy as adults, if they grow up poor they have the same chances of becoming rich. Of course some children who start out in wealthy families will become poor, and vice-versa, but these outcomes are assumed to be driven by individual differences – skill, work ethic, motivation, knowledge – not by race.

To assess if these assumptions are in fact true, scholars look to population information on family income. Last week the New York Times published “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.” (If you like charts and graphics, you should check this out!) The article described a powerful study that used family income data for every child born in the U.S. from 1978-83. The researchers analyzed black and white economic mobility by comparing family incomes when the children were born with the children’s family incomes three and a half decades later. In essence, how did the American Dream work out for this generation of Americans?

The researchers found that the reality of growing up in America didn’t match our national narrative, particularly when it comes to black boys. Among boys who grew up rich (the top fifth in income), whites were more than twice as likely as blacks to remain rich as adults. Conversely, black boys who grew up rich were more than twice as likely as white boys to end up poor (the bottom fifth in income).

How about boys who grew up in poor homes? Black boys were 50 percent more likely to be poor adults than white boys. Most striking, white boys who grew up in poor homes were five-times more likely to end up rich.

The report highlighted the positive roles played by the neighborhood presence of adult men for black boys who did well, and the negative influence of the high incarceration rates among blacks. The overarching influence on the study’s findings is the pervasive, systemic, and enduring racism in American society. These circumstances led directly to very different life chances for black boys, regardless of where they began on the economic starting line.

The health of black Americans is inextricably linked to economic opportunity. The health of black individuals and communities are both a cause and a consequence of economic status. The racial health disparities between blacks and whites underscore the importance of working together to achieve racial equity throughout society. For my friends raising their sons today, I remain hopeful that we are not destined to maintain past patterns, but change requires that we fight for the ideals of the American Dream for all of us.

Interested in learning more? I recommend the New York Time’s follow-up piece “‘When I See Racial Disparities, I See Racism.’ Discussing Race, Gender and Mobility.”

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the data, click here to examine income mobility based on race and gender through some excellent animated graphs.