Many efforts have been made to explain the persisting black-white gap in economic attainment. It is particularly puzzling because there was considerable progress in closing that gap in the decades after World War II. And then the closing slowed down. The mid-1990s seemed to bring more progress for black employment and wages, but the 21st century – especially the Great Recession – has seen retrograde movement. Moreover, as sociologists Becky Petit and Bruce Western have shown, the standard economic indicators we use, such average income, underestimate the width of the racial gap because they typically ignore the disproportionately high percentage of black men in prison or effectively out of the labor force.
When the General Social Survey asks respondents to choose an explanation for this persisting gap, about half – white, black, and Hispanic – choose blacks’ lower “chances for education” and lower “motivation or willpower” as factors (although about half of blacks and Hispanics also choose the discrimination explanation). Social scientists have explored more complex anayses. The accounts can be sorted into ones that stress the lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow – often emphasized in this blog; ones that stress current circumstances like remaining discrimination or the suburbanization of jobs; and ones that stress combinations of the two, such as how lacking family wealth makes it harder for youths to go to college just when college-going has become more important.
In a new paper [gated], University of Michigan sociologist Deirde Bloome presents a sophisticated analysis that points to contemporary conditions that have stymied the closing of the black-white gap in family income; it points more to the family part than the income part of family income.
The median income of African-American families in 1968, Bloome notes, was about 60 percent of whites’; in 2008, it was also about 60 percent. This stability is in spite of a growing black middle class and in spite of a narrowing gap in the median earnings of blacks and whites during at least the early part of this period. Bloome tries to unpack what happened by using 1968-2009 data of various kind to ask, What would we have expected to see in black and white family incomes in 2009 if we start with 1968 and then take several factors into account: black and white patterns of intergenerational mobility (the likelihood that a child born into a family at one income level will move up or down), marriage, births, and deaths.
This unpacking leads Bloome to the conclusion that unfavorable changing family structure undercut favorable economic change. Simply put, when families have one parent, it is hard to sustain family income. Had rates of marriage stayed the same, differences between black and white family income, measured by her index, would have narrowed by nearly half over the four decades. Instead, they narrowed by about one-quarter. The much greater and growing proportion of black families that are single parent accounts for the slowdown in closing the racial gap. (The proportion of white families that are single-parent has also grown, but the proportion is much lower.)
Bloome does not discuss the causes of differences in marriage. Many others have, with explanations ranging from cultural norms to employment difficulties for black men to high rates of incarceration in black communities. In any case, the pattern is that disproportionately more black children coming of age in recent years end up unmarried and in households with one income, just in a period when two incomes seem increasingly necessary for a middle-class lifestyle. Moreover, it means that the latest generation is growing up disproportionately in families with limited resources not only of parental time but also of income that parents could deploy to help them with upward mobility – quality childcare, books, tuition, and so on. The prospects for further narrowing the race gap are, for now, not bright.
 Petit, Invisible Men (2012); Western & Petit, “Black-White Wage…,” Am. Jour. Sociology, 2005.
 General Social Survey, 2008-20012, variables “racdif1-4.”
 In 1967, full-time employed black men had median earnings 65% of white men’s; in 1997, it was 75%. In 1967, FTE black women had median earnings 75% of white women’s; in 1997, it was 87%. (Historical Statistics of the United States, Table Ba. Note: Some part of the shrinking gap may be explained by rising Latino immigration.) See also Fig. 13, Card & DiNardo, NBER Working Paper No. 8769.