Children are more likely to succeed if they have a stable home environment, adequate nutrition and the opportunity to get a good education. Unfortunately, nearly 50 years after the march on Washington, opportunity still has a racial dimension, argues Institute fellow Margaret Simms in this commentary for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
At the march on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these now famous words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
While King made the statement about racial equality and racial justice, at some level, it is a sentiment to which all parents can relate. All parents want their children to reach their potential and not be held back by anything other than their willingness to work hard.
Children are more likely to succeed if they have a stable home environment, adequate nutrition and the opportunity to get a good education. Unfortunately, nearly 50 years after the march on Washington, opportunity still has a racial dimension. That is not to say that progress hasn't been made in breaking racial barriers. Advancement can be seen in every dimension of American life — education, politics and economic achievement. The percentage of African-Americans that have a college education has gone up from 3.5 percent to 18 percent. The number holding political office, including the presidency, has risen from about 1,400 to more than 10,500. Black men and women have held corporate CEO positions.
Yet in many areas, African-Americans have made little progress relative to their white counterparts. Median household income for African-Americans is only 58 percent of the median white household income, little different from the ratio in the late 1960s. This disparity reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to be unemployed regardless of how the economy is faring and that African-American families are more likely to be headed by women. Even when you compare households with the same family structure and educational level, African-Americans aren't as well off.
A recent Pew Research Center study showed the recession and housing market crash hit African-Americans hard, as those with any assets at all were most likely to have them in the form of homeownership. The Pew report shows that between 2005 and 2009, African-American wealth fell by 53 percent compared with a 19 percent drop for white households. As a result, the typical white household had 20 times the net worth of the typical black household in 2009, up from 11 times in 2005. This is the biggest gap seen in the 25 years that the data have been collected.
African-Americans are more likely to live in poverty, and children are the poorest of all. Of greatest concern should be children who are persistently poor. Those who live in poverty for more than half their childhood (before age 18) have poorer futures as adults. The Urban Institute's work on persistent poverty shows that African-American children are five times more likely to be born poor and seven times more likely to be persistently poor than white children.
Only 31 percent of the children of middle-income African-Americans achieve higher economic status than their parents, compared with 68 percent of white children, according to the Pew Trusts project on economic mobility. And 45 percent of African-American children move down the economic ladder, compared with only 16 percent of white children.
African-Americans, as far as they've come since the march on Washington, have yet to achieve financial equality in America. Income inequality in the United States is growing, and the recession has made it only worse. While parents may wish for children to have an equal opportunity to succeed, the reality is that where most children end up depends on where their families start out. Moving up can be a tremendous struggle.
Margaret C. Simms is a Institute Fellow and director of the Low-Income Working Families project at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.