It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. — Mark Twain
In 2018, Raj Chetty and his colleagues published one of the largest studies of social mobility ever conducted. By combining census data with information from federal tax returns, they were able to analyse the wealth of almost every family in the US from 1989–2015. Their results were unequivocal. The biggest obstacle a child faces in America is having being born into a poor family. Parental income is the single biggest predictor of a person’s lifelong earnings.
For example, for those born in 1980, Chetty et al found that for every 10% increase in parental income, there is a 3.4% increase in their child’s future income. This is a huge effect. It means that children whose parents are among the highest 10% of earners will earn 34% more as adults than those who parents are in the bottom decile. This effect dwarfs the effect of race. Black children born to parents in the top income quintile are more than twice as likely to become rich adults as white children whose parents are in the bottom quintile. In short, the biggest predictor of your place on the economic ladder as an adult is your parents’ income when you were growing up. The biggest obstacle to social mobility is being born into a poor family—and this disadvantage persists no matter what else you change about yourself or your environment.
So, why is having wealthy parents so important? Economist David Grusky speculates that, “Although parents cannot directly buy a middle-class outcome for their children, they can buy opportunity indirectly through advantaged access to the schools, neighborhoods, and information that create merit and raise the probability of a middle-class outcome.” In other words, opportunity is a commodity like any other and is generally sold to the highest bidder.
After household income, the second most important factor in future earnings is family structure. After controlling for parental income, East Asians earn approximately 11% more than their white counterparts and are 11% likelier to grow up in two-parent households; Hispanics earn 2% less than whites, on average, and are 13% more likely to grow up in single-parent families; blacks earn 13% less than whites and are 37% more likely to have been raised by one parent.
These numbers, however, conceal the fact that the detrimental impact of poverty and family structure in childhood seem to have a much greater impact on boys’ future earning capacities than they do on those of girls. In other words, boys who grow up in poor households are far more likely to remain poor in adulthood than their sisters. This is especially true of black boys, who earn 9.7% (in household income) less than their white peers in adulthood, whereas black women earn about 1% more than white women who were born into families with the same income. As Chetty writes, “the black–white income gap is driven entirely by large differences in wages and employment rates between black and white men; there are no such differences between black and white women.”
An examination of household income broken down by ethnic groups reveals striking differences between immigrants and native-born black people, which calls into question the idea that earning differentials are solely the result of racism. While the median income of households headed by black immigrants is somewhat lower than that of the average immigrant household ($54,700 v $58,600), it is far higher than that of American-born black households ($42,500). Some black immigrant groups, such as Nigerian Americans, even have median household incomes that are higher than those of whites.
One of the main sources of this difference is that black immigrants are a self-selected group who are more likely to have grown up more prosperous, in better neighbourhoods and especially in neighbourhoods with fewer single-parent families.
Multiple studies have confirmed that boys of all races who grow up in families with similar income levels and in similar neighbourhoods have similar chances of success, independently of their race. Poor white boys and poor black boys who grow up in the same neighbourhood in Los Angeles, for example, are equally likely to be poor as adults.
The impact of family structure on the likelihood of success in adulthood first came to national attention in 1965, when the Moynihan report concluded that the breakdown of the nuclear family was the primary cause of race-based differences in achievement. Chetty’s work suggests that we need to revise that judgement: the important factor, for a boy, is not whether he was raised by a single mother, but whether he grew up in a neighbourhood with a paucity of two-parent households. Chetty writes, “black father presence at the neighborhood level strongly predicts black boys’ outcomes irrespective of whether their own father is present or not.”
We can see similar statistics when we look at poor white families in rural communities today. Across all races, the average likelihood of growing up with both parents falls from 85% percent in upper middle-class families to 30% in the lower middle class. The take-home message here is that fathers are a social resource and that boys are particularly sensitive to their absence. Although growing up rich seems to immunize children against many of these effects, when poverty is combined with absent fathers, the negative impacts are compounded.
Why Do We Underestimate the Effects of Class?
It can be more difficult to parse the effects of class than those of race since the concept is less obviously binary. It’s relatively easy to divide people up by race (although mixed race and blended families complicate matters) but income is a continuous variable, which resists easily definable categories, since the amount of money that makes someone middle-class rather than lower class, say, can change across a lifetime. Where is the monetary cut-off between rich and poor? This continuity may also help to explain why it is so difficult to discuss other highly heritable traits that impact our likelihood of success, such as attractiveness and intelligence (a topic outside the scope of this article). If these were reducible to clear and discrete categories (e.g., dumb vs. smart or ugly vs. attractive) would we be more likely to recognize their profound effects? In addition, since we think of race as a fixed category, we tend not to see it as the fault of the individual. People do have some influence on their education and personal wealth, however—and as a result we may be more likely to blame the poor or uneducated for their social status.
In addition, while racial segregation has been decreasing since the 1970s, economic segregation has been on the rise. Americans increasingly live in socioeconomic bubbles: they have fewer interactions with people from different economic backgrounds than they used to, though they have more interactions with people of different races. Many of the middle-class professionals who talk about these problems may simply be less often confronted with issues like unemployment and housing evictions and this may encourage them to focus on things that they have often witnessed, such as problematic speech or controversial opinions.
Our culture’s monomaniacal focus on race as the single cause of social inequality is not only empirically dubious, it is also politically toxic. Any approach to mitigating inequality that is divorced from material conditions and ties identity to immutable traits like race is certain to provoke resentment and exacerbate tribalism. It is also bound to fail. It is far easier to encourage people to feel compassionate towards the poor than to get them to feel that people as or more prosperous than themselves are to be pitied because of more intangible things like inconsiderate language or difficult-to-prove anecdotal instances of discrimination. There is no problem achieving credibility when you are claiming sympathy for someone who is clearly destitute: the individual’s material circumstances speak for themselves. You can’t argue that a homeless person is just imagining that he is badly off or playing the victim card. No wonder a 2016 Gallup poll found that, while 63% of Americans oppose colleges employing race-based admissions quotas, 61% favour positive discrimination based on students’ economic circumstances.
Despite broad public support for class-based affirmative action, the American obsession with racial categories has made it very difficult to enact. Social mobility research suggests that one of the most effective ways to reduce inequality is to allow the poor more access to higher education. Attending four-year college is the best way to level the playing field for the most disadvantaged kids. It nearly eliminates other disadvantages—including that of being born into a poor family. In fact, the poorest students at elite four-year colleges earn only 5% less than their richest classmates within ten years of graduation. Unfortunately—as with everything else that impacts personal success—the chances of being able to attend college are directly tied to parental income. Children from the richest 10% of families make up 67% of all four-year college students, while children whose parents are in the bottom 20% of the income distribution make up a mere 4% of students. In other words, the path most likely to help poor but intellectually able kids climb out of poverty is effectively closed to those it is most likely to help.
The economic apartheid of elite universities is hardly surprising, given that these colleges are generally more concerned about increasing their endowments than helping the poor. Many of them—like Princeton—would rather cop to charges of racism than own up to the far more formidable problem of classism. This is because universities can easily foster greater racial diversity among their student bodies without upsetting their wealthy patrons—by simply admitting more wealthy foreign-born black students: a policy that promotes what Clarence Thomas has called the “aesthetic” of diversity. One study showed that, although black immigrants make up less than 1% of America’s total population, they comprise 41% of black students at Ivy League universities. Outside the Ivies, immigrant black students attend colleges at four times the rate of native-born black people. This solution is, of course, far easier and cheaper than offering more scholarships to low-income students.
Decades of social mobility research has come to the same conclusion: we are born into an economic caste system and our future success is largely determined by our parents’ income and by the nature of the neighbourhoods in which we grow up. Race is not the determining social factor in individual success: it is, at best, a poor proxy for the real causes. Privilege is very real. But it’s based on class, not race.
I’ve been saying this for years: you are no longer allowed to discriminate against anyone based on their race, colour, ethnicity, sex, etc….but it’s okay to do so based on their economic status. And do so quite openly, by posting admission fees, and goods pricing.
The lifting of millions of working-class, immigrant ethnic, and rural Americans into a new middle class after World War II by the New and Fair Deals, the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar economic boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the G.I. Bill created the demographic base of the “generations” like “Baby Boomers,” “Gen X,” and “Millennials” of which we now hear so much. It also, as well, helps explain the extreme political polarization of American society in recent decades, with its eclipse of class by race and ethnicity in social and political discourse. The postwar new middle class as the key to America’s present political polarization is not just my own original idea, nor is it a new idea by any means. This newly affluent new middle class’ insecure sense of its new “respectability” and “fully American“ status was a principal theme of 1950’s and 1960’s analyses of mid-century… Read more »
Another category besides race and ethnicity obsessively over-emphasized at the expense of class in much current socio-political commentary is that of GENERATIONS. We endlessly hear and read pundits and commentators pontificating about “Baby Boomers” (or just “Boomers”), “Generation X” (or just “Gen X”), “Gen Y,” “Gen Z,” and “Millennials,” dividing people into supposedly homogenous age cohorts of about a decade (or anywhere from 5 to 15 ir 20 years), People of a given “generation” are all assumed to have the same or very similar life-experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and life-styles, regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin–or social class, educational level, or religious affiliation. In practice, most of this talk about “generations,” about “Baby Boomers,” Gen X’exers,” and “Millennials,” is about MIDDLE CLASS people, either college students, college graduates, or young people nearing college age. Specifically, it is very largely about the children and grandchildren of people who rose into the… Read more »
I agree that class is a much better predictor for social mobility than race. However, I fear that much of the left has lost their compassion for the lower class. Who do you want to help, the guy from the hood (who doesn’t share most of your values) or the one black kid in your neigbourhood (who doesn’t really need help, but who does share your values)?
Robert Lynch put his finger on one of the central weaknesses–and hypocrisies–of much “woke” progressivism with his observation that “[t]he economic apartheid of elite universities is hardly surprising, given that these colleges are generally more concerned about increasing their endowments than helping the poor.” In particular, Lynch hit the nail right on the head by noting that elite universities like Princeton (and many others) would “rather cop to charges of racism than own up to the far more formidable problem of classism,” as they can “easily foster greater racial diversity among their student bodies without upsetting their wealthy patrons,” just by stratagems like “admitting more wealthy foreign-born black students,” promoting Charles Thomas’“aesthetic of diversity.” This solution is, of course, as Lynch notes, “far easier and cheaper than offering more scholarships to low-income students.” This focus on “aesthetic of diversity,” as Lynch seems to imply, may of course well be particularly… Read more »
Robert Lynch’s wonderful article “It’s class, not race” reminds me a little bit of Bill Clinton’s famous remark that “It’s the economy, stupid!,” but even more of a friend’s retort to the right-wing charge that the concept of racial and ethnic minorities is just a bit of “Cultural Marxism,” just a Marxist invention to divide and polarize society. As my friend noted, that kind of a division of society is actually anathema to Marxism. Marxists, he explained, want to unite the entire working class against capitalism, while dividing people based on ethnicity is a classic strategy of the bourgeoisie to stop workers from uniting against them. This was already clear in the late 19th century, when a number of European socialists and radical democrats pointed out how anti-Semitism was being fomented and popularized by reactionaries to distract the working class from their true antagonists, from the true causes of their economic and social… Read more »
Thanks, that was a most excellent essay. It should be required reading for all progressive/SJW types.
Good article aside from the misuse of “apartheid.” Still, there is no need to play off class versus race, especially as the two overlap in some ways (for an interesting but dense consideration see https://www.academia.edu/42939903/How_is_capitalism_racial_Fanon_critical_theory_and_the_fetish_of_antiblackness). There is significant downward pressure on successful African Americans e.g. “the wealthiest Black moms are more likely to die in childbirth than the poorest white moms” https://www.cnn.com/2023/04/29/opinions/wealthiest-black-moms-childbirth-mortality-allers/index.html and “White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/19/upshot/race-class-white-and-black-men.html.
“Decades of social mobility research has come to the same conclusion: we are born into an economic caste system and our future success is largely determined by our parents’ income and by the nature of the neighbourhoods in which we grow up.”
In meritocratic societies, genetic differences are bound to be a significant factor underlying variability in SES. Per Gregory Clark’s research, the above lines could be rewritten as follows: “We are born into a genetic caste system and our future success is largely determined by our parents’ genes and by the nature of the neighborhoods in which we grow up.”
I can just hear Karl Marx himself saying “AMEN!” from the Beyond!