Black Progress: Two Ways to Look at It

A deep philosophical divide exists between those who measure socioeconomic progress by mobility or by equality, by moving up from absolute poverty or by closing the relative gap between rich and poor. Nowhere is this divide more evident than in the discussion over the economic progress of African Americans in the '90s. The data provide evidence for both sides of the argument. There has been a remarkable reduction in black poverty over the past decade -- yet there has been a surprising failure to close the economic gap between blacks and whites during that time. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, however, may well depend on where in society it is viewed.

At the bottom economic rung, people are likely to dream of moving up and out -- and that's exactly what happened. The share of black families living below the poverty line dropped, from 31% in 1992 (roughly the level it had bounced around since the 1960s) to 21% in 2001. Average black life expectancy also rose, wages went up, homeownership increased, wealth expanded, and the percentage of young people completing college jumped significantly. Seen from the streets and ghettos of any American city, this represents huge progress for blacks.

The view from the perspective of the African American middle class may be different. There, where people consider equality a more important measure of progress, the glass appears half empty. There are more black executives and managers in Corporate America, yet they earn much less than their white counterparts. Black men still earn only 74% of the median full-time wages and salaries of white men -- barely above the 1992 level. The relative earnings of black women have actually worsened. In 2001, the average net worth of black families was 16% of white families, down from 22% in 1992.

Does this gap reflect some racial prejudice in America? Probably so. But it is also true that the fast growth and wealth generation of the '90s widened the gap between the very rich and all other groups in the U.S. -- whatever their ethnicity. It is also true that people of any color breaking into managerial and professional ranks for the first time are valued less by the marketplace than more experienced managers. Hence the gaps in income and wealth.

For much of its history, the U.S. has been a place of little socioeconomic mobility for African Americans and great inequality. In the '90s, this changed, thanks to fast growth and greater opportunities. Poverty was sharply reduced, and millions of people rose into the middle class. An economic gap clearly remains, but the most important African American story of the 1990s is the narrative of success and mobility. It is the story of the glass being half full and still rising.

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