The Racial Income Gap

Black Americans have always figured disproportionately among the nation's poor.

Of course, differences in incomes can have explanations apart from race. Even so, after other factors are accounted for, race still seems to play a role in how people fare financially.

A greater portion of white households have both a husband and wife present and have two or more wage-earners. So the question arises whether income ratios would change if black families had the same proportion of single parents and married couples as white households now do.

The answer is: No. Were this change to occur, the income for black families would only rise from $580 to $732 for each $1,000 earned by their white counterparts, not exactly an impressive improvement.

Usually, more education brings a higher income. But the catch for black men is that even when they reach the same academic level as white men, their incomes stay several steps behind. Hence the advice so often offered to blacks, that they should stay in school, seems valid only insofar as it informs them that with education they will move ahead of others of their own race.

Black women come much closer to parity with their white counterparts, making between $925 and $1,002 for each $1,000 earned by white women at their level.

The greater equity among women results largely from the fact that few women of either race rise far in the earnings hierarchy. The comparative status of black women warrants only a muted cheer: Achieving equality is easier with an underpaid cohort.

Measured in economic terms, the past two decades have not been auspicious for Americans of any race. Between 1970 and 1990, the median income for white families, computed in constant dollars, rose from $34,481 to $36,915, an increase of 8.7 percent. In these decades, black family income barely changed, going from $21,151 to $21,423.

In relative terms, black incomes dropped from $613 to $580 for each $1,000 received by whites. The incomes of white men also dropped in this period, so if white families recorded a modest rise, it was because more of them had wives who went to work.

However, medians - like averages - can conceal important variations. Although during the two decades the proportion of black households with incomes over $50,000 expanded by 46 percent, that did not mean that many black men and women have jobs paying at that level. Indeed, only 3.4 percent of all black men make $50,000 or more; most $50,000 households result from two or more sets of earnings. In contrast, 12.1 percent of white men receive more than $50,000, and many more of them are the sole or dominant earners in their households.

So while there is now a much larger black middle class, more typically the husband is likely to be a bus driver earning $32,000, while his wife brings home $28,000 as a teacher or a nurse. A white middle-class family is three to four times more likely to contain a husband earning $75,000 in a managerial position, allowing him to support a nonworking wife.

It is not easy to visualize these two couples living on the same block, let alone becoming acquainted with one another.