African-American children in the United States fare worse than any other group on key factors affecting economic success later in life. According to a report released in April by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, this fact highlights the necessity of focusing on the way systems operate to exclude Black children from meaningful participation in the nation's economy.
The report, titled Race for Results, collects data from all 50 states on 12 factors affecting the likelihood someone will be middle class by middle age. It then presents an index score from zero to 1,000 that makes it possible to compare how well positioned to reach the middle class children from different groups are. The higher the score, the more likely children in the relevant group will be middle class by middle age.
Asian and Pacific Islander children had the best overall score in the nation, with 776. Non-Hispanic White children had a national score of 704, while African-American children had the lowest national score at 345. The score for African-American children in Maryland was slightly higher, at 474.
Among the factors considered in the study were percentage of fourth graders who scored at or above proficient in reading, high school students graduating on time, children who live in two-parent families, and children who live in areas where less than 20 percent of residents live in poverty.
All these are factors that have been found by the Social Genome Project of the Brookings Institution to impact the likelihood that children will reach the middle class by middle age, according to Laura Speer, associate director of policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
For Speer, the low index scores for many children of color do not bode well for the economic future of the country. "As the country gets more diverse," said Speer, "the future prosperity of the country and our global competitiveness is going to really hinge especially on the success of kids of color."
While the report concludes that there is room for improvement among all children, it emphasizes the need for a focus on the systems that drive racial disparities in the United States, noting that "The public systems designed to help children and families have functioned in ways that denied opportunity to people of color – and even worked to push them down the ladder."
One example of such a system cited in the report is the G.I. Bill, originally instituted to help veterans of World War II pay for college. Implemented at a time when many of the nation's institutions of higher learning did not admit African Americans, the G.I. Bill, while neutral on its face, primarily benefited White soldiers who were in a better position to take advantage of the opportunity for a college education in a still heavily segregated country.
Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris, a sociologist at Morgan State University, spoke to the AFRO about the way the historical exclusion of African Americans from meaningful economic development opportunities, including access to higher education, continues to affect the ability of middle class indicators, like a college education, to function in the same way for all Americans. She noted that because many students of color are among the first in their families to attend college, they often have to rely on student loans to fund the enterprise. The burden of paying back those loans, even when middle class employment is achieved, prevents these students from fully entering the middle class.
"People are arguably kept in their place, for lack of a better expression, because they actually have very bad debt that they possibly would not necessarily have had if it were not for their being first generation college students," said Dr. Pratt-Harris.
For Speer, it is not enough that a policy or system is neutral on its face, since the country's history of racial discrimination influences the ability of such systems to function in the same way for all people. "There's a difference between things being equal and things being equitable," said Speer, "and where you see that is in the outcomes."
The report recommends that the impact of potential policies on communities of color be studied prior to implementation in order to avoid reproducing systems and institutions that produce disparate outcomes for different populations.