Wide Economic Gap Between Blacks And Whites Persists

Sep 2, 2013
Originally published on September 2, 2013 2:55 pm

While American blacks have made some social and financial gains in the past 50 years, studies show the economic gaps between blacks and whites have remained or widened.

We take a look at the most recent data with Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, who recently wrote about “The Maddening, Unmoving Economic Gap Between Blacks and Whites.”

(Pew Research Center)

(Pew Research Center)

(Pew Research Center)


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

And there was a lot of talk last week about civil rights in this country on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. President Obama spoke of the social and economic progress that has been made, but he also said there's more work that needs to be done.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal?

HOBSON: Well, what are the numbers when it comes to the economic disparities between blacks and whites then and now? Derek Thompson has been looking into that. He's the business editor at The Atlantic, and he's with us now. Hi, Derek.

DEREK THOMPSON: Hi. Good to be here.

HOBSON: Well, let's start with the good news here. Where are the gaps between blacks and whites narrowed since 1963?

THOMPSON: Right. There are three happy stories to tell here and by far the happiest has to do with high school. In 1960, fewer than 30 percent of blacks had graduated from high school after the age of 25. Today, it's more than 80 percent, and the gap between blacks and whites has narrowed tremendously. At the same time, life expectancy has grown faster for blacks since 1960 than for whites. And somewhat remarkably, in terms of voter turnout, blacks actually outvoted whites in 2012. So across all three categories, you have seen pretty dramatic improvement.

HOBSON: But there are areas where there is still trouble, and I know that wages is one of them.

THOMPSON: Wages is absolutely one of them. On the one hand, it is true that since 1960, wages for blacks have grown. But the difference between white earners and black earners has actually widened so that the gap has increased. And that's worrisome because it really goes back to education, I think. Even though the high school gap has closed, the college gap is still rather wide. Whites finish college at a much higher rate than blacks, and that really shows up in the numbers for both household income and household wealth.

HOBSON: Also a big gap, Derek, in home ownership. Back in the '60s, it was, what, a 25-point gap and now it's 30.

THOMPSON: That's exactly right, Jeremy. And, you know, this is one of those situations where it also, I think, comes back to income and income comes back to education. When people talk about social mobility, when they talk about economic equality of opportunity, it really starts with education. Education is the way that we help low-income kids go to, you know, public institutions, and then they get the same high-quality education as some richer kids, and it's an equalizer.

But if fewer black people are finishing college and finishing a secondary education, then it leaves them at a tremendous disadvantage when you look at both household income and rates of home ownership.

HOBSON: Well, is there a root cause that sort of feeds into all these problems? Because you would think that that cause would have gotten better, not worse, over these years.

THOMPSON: Right. What we've seen, I think, one of the causes is just poverty. And, you know, in 1960, I think, the gap between white and black poverty was something like - was in the low 20s, and now it's in the high teens. So there's still this tremendous gap in poverty. And I think the other thing that's shown up is that family formation has changed a lot. And you see that marriage rates among blacks has really just collapsed in the last 50 years. And one thing that we know about single-parent earners is that they have tremendous demands on their time. It's hard to raise a child while working a job. Duel-earner households are a tremendous bonus to social mobility. And it's been harder to have that as a raising rate among blacks.

HOBSON: But you would think that among whites the marriage rate has also fallen.

THOMPSON: It has fallen. It hasn't fallen as much. You know, really, you know, this is a huge issue, I think, is the incredible rise, I think the tripling of single parents has a share of total households in the last half century. It's a trend to sort of unpack all on its own, but it's definitely disproportionately affected minorities over whites.

HOBSON: Derek Thompson is the business editor at The Atlantic. You can find a link to his article at Derek, thanks as always.

THOMPSON: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And still to come, an annual summertime ritual winds down. We'll drop in on some state fairs around the country. Back in a minute with that. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.