4/28/2015 feature story
Deirdre Bloome looks at the relative effects of intergenerational disadvantage and period-specific demographic and economic shifts on black-white family income inequality over the past 40 years.
Racial disparity in family incomes remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years in the United States despite major legal and social reforms. Previous scholarship presents two primary explanations for persistent inequality through a period of progressive change. One highlights continuity: because socioeconomic status is transmitted from parents to children, disparities created through histories of discrimination and opportunity denial may dissipate slowly. The second highlights change: because family income results from joining individual earnings in family units, changing family compositions can offset individuals' changing economic chances. I examine whether black-white family income inequality trends are better characterized by the persistence of existing disadvantage (continuity) or shifting forms of disadvantage (change). I combine cross-sectional and panel analysis using Current Population Survey, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Census, and National Vital Statistics data. Results suggest that African Americans experience relatively extreme intergenerational continuity (low upward mobility) and discontinuity (high downward mobility); both helped maintain racial inequality. Yet, intergenerational discontinuities allow new forms of disadvantage to emerge. On net, racial inequality trends are better characterized by changing forms of disadvantage than by continuity. Economic trends were equalizing but demographic trends were disequalizing; as family structures shifted, family incomes did not fully reflect labor-market gains.
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