Is It Race or Class? To the Trump Administration, It Doesn’t Matter

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Jennifer Donald, whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, eats dinner with her sons David and Donovan, and daughter Jayla, in Philadelphia.

The income inequality between black and white Americans affects not only the ability of poor black men to earn more money than their parents, but also the chances of black men who were raised in the wealthiest households to remain wealthy. And the income disparities between black and white adults exist even if they grew up in families with similar incomes, education, and family structure—even if they lived in the same neighborhood.

That’s the conclusion of an expansive new study by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, two economists with the Equality of Opportunity Project, and Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter of the Census Bureau. Their results point to specific poverty interventions—namely, reducing systemic racism and discrimination—that policymakers may want to prioritize when tackling the black-white social mobility gap, policies that the Trump administration is much more likely to repeal than adopt.

We already know about economic inequality between black and white individuals in a single generation. Today, the racial wealth gap is vast: White Americans own, on average, ten times more wealth than black Americans.

But the researchers of the new study weighed data concerning nearly every American between 1989 and 2015 to consider income disparities between parent and child, and thus upward mobility. They found that, compared to white social mobility, Hispanic upward mobility is improving, and Asian American mobility matches or is better than the mobility of white Americans. But the chance of a black or Native American child rising through the income ranks is much lower than that of a white child. In fact, black Americans and Native Americans have higher rates of downward mobility compared to other groups: A black child born to a family in the wealthiest quintile is about as likely to fall into the poorest quintile than to remain in their original economic class. The researchers also find that, when parental income is similar, individual black women’s wages and work hours are comparable to those of white women—meaning the black-white generational income gap is driven entirely by the incomes of men.

This study is significant in that the results point to income disparities that cut across generations—and that can’t be explained by parental income, wealth, education, or geography. As would be expected, in neighborhoods with low poverty and better school results, black boys and white boys fare better than average—but the outcome gap between races still remains large, suggesting that white boys benefit more from the resources in those neighborhoods. The mass incarceration of black men, as compared to white men, is another gap that transcends parental income: while one in five black men born to parents in the poorest quintile are incarcerated on a given day, only one in sixteen white men born to the poorest parents are incarcerated. Incarceration rates fall as parental income rises, but among the wealthiest 1 percent of families, 2.2 percent of black men are incarcerated—the same incarceration rate for white men born to families making $36,000.

The few places where black boys have better outcomes than average and where the gap between black and white is smaller are defined by two general features: low levels of racial animosity among whites and a greater presence of black fathers (not necessarily a boy’s own father).

Raising the minimum wage and increasing welfare payments are important strategies to bridge the gap between the rich and poor within a particular generation—and because black families are disproportionately affected by poverty, these interventions would disproportionately help them. Boosting the minimum wage to $15 by 2024 would (directly or indirectly) give 40 percent of black workers a raise. (Of course, the Trump administration is both restricting welfare and opposing any efforts to raise the minimum wage, while instituting massive tax cuts for the rich.)

But as for the intergenerational black-white gap that the study details? The strategies that focus on putting more money in the pockets of the poor now may not be enough to curb racial intergenerational inequality if they don’t “also change rates of upward mobility across generations.” The evidence in this study suggests that even more must be done to allay the intergenerational disparities.

The researchers write that the best initiatives would be those “whose impacts cross neighborhood and class lines.” Possible examples, the study concludes, include mentoring programs for black boys, efforts to reduce racial bias among whites, interventions to reduce racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system, and “efforts to facilitate greater interaction across racial groups.”

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has curtailed many of the policies and programs that may work to reduce the racial disparities detailed in the study.

The government itself may not be able to directly reduce racial bias among whites, short of the uncertain panacea of offering nationwide implicit bias trainings. But it can move to interrupt systemic racism, especially in policing and the criminal justice system. The Obama Department of Justice created a program to reform local police departments in the wake of police violence against unarmed black men. But last fall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the DOJ was scaling back on the program’s police department oversight and reforms, to instead “fight violent crime.” Sessions also last year rescinded an Obama-era memo that was meant to prevent low-level drug offenders from receiving harsh mandatory minimum sentences—black Americans, who use drugs at similar rates as white Americans, are imprisoned for drug crimes at nearly six times the rate of whites.

A major priority of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been to reduce discrimination as well as segregation in housing—that is, it seems, until Ben Carson took the reins. The fact that HUD under Carson is considering removing the word “discrimination” from its mission statement, replacing it with “self-sufficiency” language, illustrates the new perspective at HUD. Carson has attempted to delay implementing rules that promote fair housing access and neighborhood integration. In the past, Carson has called desegregation attempts “social engineering.”

Moreover, moving toward greater income equality through policies like a $15 minimum wage and expanding—or universalizing—cash welfare transfers could also help reduce racism by reducing the stigma against lower-wage workers and the poor who receive welfare, who are disproportionately people of color. But under the current administration, these are policies that won’t be pursued.

The researchers point to mentoring programs for black boys because their study shows that black boys fare better in neighborhoods where more black fathers are present—and that doesn’t necessarily mean their own father. The effect of neighborhood father presence only exists for black boys—not for white boys or black girls. Currently, the only federal mentoring program operates through the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The office is meant to reduce youth crime and violence—a mission that seems to focus on children who are at risk to disrupt society, rather than promoting mentoring for the children’s sake. Under the new administration, the office circulated a “language guidance” memo to staff advising them to avoid “discussing the juvenile and criminal justice system WITHOUT adding public safety aspect” and to use the phrase “all youth” in discussions and memos, instead of “underserved youth.” Trump’s proposed 2019 budget slashes funding for the youth mentoring programs by about 40 percent.

Debate across the left frequently focuses on whether reducing racial or class disparities would lead to improved economic equality. The new research from the Equality of Opportunity Project suggests that the answer is, and has always been, both.

And in light of the Trump administration’s white nationalism, and that it has only furthered the gaping chasm that defines our country’s economic inequality, claiming the wealth that the rich will reap from their massive tax cuts will “trickle down,” it only makes sense that they would attack initiatives that prioritize both race and class, too.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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