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A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.
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Is this what being middle class is supposed to look like? (Photo: trekandshoot/Shutterstock)

Is this what being middle class is supposed to look like? (Photo: trekandshoot/Shutterstock)

Social mobility refers to the likelihood that a person born in one social class will end up in another as an adult. A new study by Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill for the Brookings Institute offered a devastating picture of the possibilities for black youth. To summarize: Most black children see downward mobility and are poorer as adults than they were as children.


More than half of black children born into the poorest one-fifth of households will remain there as adults. That’s only true for 36 percent of similarly situated Americans overall. Poor black children, then, are less likely than Americans in general to be able to escape poverty.

Black children born into the middle class—literally the middle fifth of Americans as measured by household income—overwhelmingly see downward mobility. Sixteen percent will remain somewhere in the middle, 14 percent will be richer than their parents, and a whopping 69 percent will end up less economically stable. In comparison, only 38 percent of Americans, overall, born into the middle fifth see a decline in their status as adults.

As you may have noticed from the hole in the far right of the chart, the researchers didn’t have enough cases to even estimate outcomes for blacks born rich.

Below is the data for whites (first) and all Americans (second) for comparison:



Here’s the first author, Richard Reeves, explaining social mobility, using Legos of course:

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Chart of the Week: A Majority of Middle Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults.”