WASHINGTON - Nearly half of African-Americans born to middle-income parents in the late 1960s plunged into poverty or near-poverty as adults, according to a study - a perplexing finding that analysts say highlights the fragile nature of middle-class life for many African-Americans.
Overall, family incomes have risen for both blacks and whites over the past three decades. But in a society where the privileges of class and income most often perpetuate themselves from generation to generation, black Americans have had more difficulty than whites in transmitting those benefits to their children.
Forty-five percent of black children whose parents were solidly middle class in 1968 - a stratum with a median income of $55,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars - grew up to be among the lowest fifth of the nation's earners, with a median family income of $23,100. Only 16 percent of whites experienced similar downward mobility. At the same time, 48 percent of black children whose parents were in an economic bracket with a median family income of $41,700 sank into the lowest income group.
This picture of black economic progress is contained in a package of three reports being released today by the Pew Charitable Trusts that test the vitality of the American dream. Using a nationally representative data source that for nearly four decades has tracked people who were children in 1968, researchers attempted to answer two questions: Do Americans generally advance beyond their parents in terms of income? And how much is that affected by race and gender?
"We are attempting to broaden the current debate" beyond the growing gap between higher- and lower-income Americans, said John Morton, Pew's managing director for program planning and economic policy. "There is little out there on the question of mobility across generations and we wanted to examine that."
The data source, called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, followed 2,367 people from across the country, including 730 African Americans, since 1968. The study participants have been repeatedly interviewed about their economic status through the years, allowing for income comparisons across generations.
The Pew reports found that in many ways the American dream is alive and well. Two out of three Americans are upwardly mobile, meaning they had higher incomes than their parents.
Median family income for adults now in their 30s and 40s rose by 29 percent to $71,900 between the two generations covered in the reports.
Ronald Mincy, a Columbia University sociologist who has focused on the growing economic peril confronted by black men and served as an adviser on the Pew project, said skeptical researchers repeatedly reviewed the findings before concluding they were statistically accurate.
"There is a lot of downward mobility among African-Americans," Mincy said. "We don't have an explanation."
Correction: Because of incorrect information from the Washington Post, a story in Tuesday's Nation pages about the economic mobility of African-Americans misstated the academic specialty of Columbia University professor Ronald B. Mincy. He is an economist and professor of social welfare policy, not a sociologist.