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MISREPRESENTING THE AMERICAN DREAM

summary

Over five years after NARPAC developed this chapter on the relationship between kids' school performance and their parent(s)'s educational attainment, main stream analyses by respected non- profit organizations still seem to ignore the connection completely. A new scholarly report funded by Pew Family Trust, and conducted primarily at Brookings, provides some interesting correlation between the earnings of parents in the 1960's, and those of their kids some 40 years later. While NARPAC finds the methodology lacking, there appears to be substantial progress for the majority of Americans. Somehow, however, media reports seem to think that the American Dream is "in tatters" because everybody didn't get to the head of the line in one generation. It is an example of an expensive analysis that leaves itself open to both criticism and misinterpretation.

introduction

In November, 2007, the final report of a major initiative by the Pew Family Trust was made public. Written primarily by Brookings scholar Julia Isaacs, this extensive "Economic Mobility Project" set out to see if the American Dream of "doing better than one's parents" could be demonstrated. It was carried out using "a widely respected national data source that enables direct matching of family income of parents in the late 1960's to their children's family income in the late 1990's to early 2000's". The gross conclusions of the report are that:

o "The current generation of adults is better off than the previous one but their incomes are more unevenly distributed;

o "Two out of three Americans have higher incomes than their parents, but one-third are falling behind;

o "Contrary to American beliefs about equality of opportunity, a child's economic position is heavily influenced by that of his or her parents; and finally that

o " Americans have higher incomes than a prior generation, but that does not necessarily mean they are moving up the economic ladder compared to their parents or to other families. Only one third is what the report calls "upwardly mobile". Another one-third is "downwardly mobile"" (as dictated by which income "quintile" they fall in);

To these general conclusions, two Washington Post articles present summaries that suggest that 'the sky is falling', particularly on those whose parents were on the bottom of the economic ladder. Michael Fletcher of the Post headlined:

"Middle-Class Dream Eludes African American Families: Many Blacks Worse Off than their Parents, Study says"

And an OpEd by Eugene Robinson of the Post's editorial staff followed up ten days later with:

"Tattered Dream: Who'll Tackle the Issue of Upward Mobility?"

basic findings

The basic report can best be summarized by a clever presentation of the "economic mobility" of American families. The five stacks below indicate the five equal "quintiles" in which the parental fell. The five bands in each stack then represent where the income of their kids fell. Hence, among the kids of those in the bottom quintile (left stack), 41% were still in the (new) bottom fifth, while 9% made it all the way to the top, and another 8% got next to the top. Is that the American Dream, or what? At the other extreme (right stack), 39% of the kids of the wealthiest parents stayed amongst the wealthiest, but 6% hit rock bottom, and another 10% fell to the second quintile. Isn't that the American Dream too, to avoid economic dynasties?

In the lower chart, progress in actual income is summarized. Altogether, 67% of all kids ended up with higher income than their parents. Among the bottom fifth, 83% did better, and among the top fifth, only 43% did better. Somehow, this result is obfuscated elsewhere by the introduction of relative improvements by quintile.

rewriting the American Dream

NARPAC is troubled both by the summary report, and by the newspaper reporting for four primary reasons:

o we don't ever remember that upward mobility was a God-given, or nationality-guaranteed, birthright: in our generation. It was only an opportunity waiting to be grasped, and to be realized by hard work, not by having been born with an American birth certificate;

o we cannot even imagine that throughout the three reports (on "Families"; on "Men and Women"; and on "Black and White"), or the two newspaper accounts, the words 'education', 'schooling', or 'ambition' simply do not appear at all. While some acknowledgment is given to the decline in two-parent families, NARPAC's fundamental belief that (in general, public 'stars' notwithstanding) individual and family income are closely related to educational attainment is simply not mentioned, even in passing; Nor is there the slightest suggestion that kids' educational achievements are (again, generally speaking) related to the educational achievements of their parent(s).

Based on readily available Census data, the three charts to the left show major influences on median income. The top one shows that in 2004, those with no high school diploma eked out an average of $22,500 while those with "some college" earn $47,000, those with a Master's Degree bring in $80,000, and those with a professional degree make 25% more than that. The middle chart indicates the significance of modern family configuration, which is noted in passing in the study. Married couples can bring in over $60,000, while single Moms are stuck at $30,000. And finally, there was a substantial difference in the earnings of black and white families back in 1984. white couples earned 28% more than black couples, and white single Moms brought home 75% more than Black Moms. Surely these have an important impact on relative economic mobility.

o third, the analytical technique of using the movement between "quintiles" (each of which must, by definition, contain precisely twenty percent of the relevant sample) fundamentally limits the level of success indicated. Unlike the Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, "where all the parents are good looking, and all the kids are above average", in this postulation, new entries into any quintile require an equivalent shift of others into another higher or lower quintile. If every last offspring made between $999,000 and $1,001,000, 20% would still be labeled "top quintile'", and 20% "bottom quintile", leaving the pundits clucking that hordes of younger generation earners had been denied the American Dream. It is a serious flaw, which appears to go unnoticed. Isn't it axiomatic that if one-third "stayed the same", one other third must have gone up, and the other down?

o finally, these quintiles do not describe the same economic circumstances among different subgroups. This is illustrated on the three charts to the left which show the increase in income with the cumulative numbers of households in the group. For instance, at the top, in the "bottom quintile" (i.e., the 20% line), the top household income for blacks is barely $10,000 while for whites it is $20,000. Gender (middle chart) has equally significant variations. The "third quintile" (i.e., the 60% line) brings in perhaps $37,000 in individual income for white males, but maybe $19,000 for black females. In fact, the earning power of black males is very close to that of white females. Lastly, the variation with education is most extreme. The "second quintile" (i.e., the 40% line) brought a maximum money income of $40,000 for white college grads, but only about $25,000 for white high school grads. But these are far better than the $28,000 for black college graduates, and only $15,000 for blacks with only high school diplomas. Hence the content of each quintile varies widely with the sample included, and makes comparisons difficult at best. Surely upward mobility of kids is related not only to their parents' quintile, but to their actual family income (and education) as well.

the education factor

While NARPAC has no objection to all the work that was done in this expensive scholarly study, we do think there is as much if not more wisdom in just looking at the trends in underlying factors that will determine the ability of Americans to climb the economic ladder. We know of no reliable data on the level of kids' ambitions: we suspect they should be higher at the disadvantaged level than at the overly advantaged level, where the subject of improving their lot, or living up to Mom and Dad, may never have arisen during their childhood. Realizing the American Dream depends on getting a good education and pressing to apply it in the marketplace. There is no free lunch.

We believe that educated parents are the best path to educated kids. We can't imagine the difficulty for kids from homes where the parent(s) can't or don't read, and never advise their kids on how to get beyond their current family life. But some things can be learned from current trends, as shown on the chart below. Between 1960 and 2005, there has been a substantial improvement in the overall education level of Moms and Dads. In the three oversimplified charts below the rise in "educational score" (here dumbed down [due to data limits] to a "1" for a high school degree, and a "2" for a bachelor's degree or better), it is clear that overall (left side) scores have more than doubled in the last 45 years, and that Moms have basically caught up with Dads. It is also clear that blacks still lag behind whites in total achievement, but appear to be catching up somewhat faster. It is also evident that black women are showing more ambition to learn (right side). Somewhat more troubling, perhaps, is that the rate of increase in education score appears to be leveling off, though this may be a quirk of the oversimplified methodology that does not award extra score for advanced degrees.

The bottom chart above shows a somewhat different problem, however, and one that is touched on very lightly by the EMP report: NARPAC believes that the proper measure for kids' potential is the sum of the educational attainment of each parent. Kids missing one parent or the other are surely more likely to do less well in preparing for their school years, and probably in school as well. The lower chart shows the fraction of those families with kids where only one parent is present, generally the substantially lower income-generating Mom. Single black Moms have increased markedly since the '60' and are almost three times as prevalent as single white Moms, and single Dads are a rarity for both races. One result, therefore, is that two-parent black families have produced one-parent kids, with an inevitable loss in income, and hence "downward mobility". On the other hand, NARPAC has not previously noted a decline in single parents since the mid-'90s. for both blacks and whites. This will be a welcome trend if true and continuing.

The final chart set below shows the impact of the missing parents. The red bars on the top three charts below provide the combined scores of both parents, factoring in those that are missing (from the previous chart). The green background shows the 'maximum' if both parents were always present, and the gap between the two appears to represent some sort of societal difference between the races concerning parenting (married or not). More encouraging, however, is the final chart which shows the ratio of the red bars between whites and blacks over the past 45 years. Black scores have risen from 40% of those for white parents to a bit over 70%: a trend that appears to be continuing in the right direction. To NARPAC at least, this is a precondition for "tackling the upward mobility issue" over the long haul.

THE SPECIAL DEMOGRAPHICS OF PARENTS

When searching to explain the lagging performance of kids in school, it has long been customary to grade the academic achievements of the kids themselves, and more recently, to grade the performance of the teachers and principals of their schools. Little is done, however, to "grade" the performance of the kids' parents who, for good or bad, surely have the greatest impact on their kids ultimate success in life.

NARPAC has used the extensive data in the Census Bureau's Metro Area Housing Survey to characterize the demographics of all parents in the DC metro area, dividing them up between black and "non- black", housing owners and renters, and those below the poverty line. It then looks further at those who live in DC, Prince George's and Fairfax Counties. In all the households with kids, it is possible to determine the number of kids as well as the number of parents and other adults. From national data, it is possible to determine the relative income of single- and dual-parent households with and without kids. And from other national sources, it is possible to determine the age and marital status of US moms by race. Still other studies by the Urban Institute describe the likelihood of aberrant behavior of kids as a result of their home environment, and these kids soon become the parents of the next generation. Together, these data present a depressing picture of the continuing cycle of poverty that continues to plague American urban areas in general, and the DC area in particular.

Households with Parents

These first two charts provide an overview of the distribution of households with and without kids, and with one or two parents. At the regional level, there were almost 1.7 million households in the DC area before the turn of the century, of which 0.6M were renters, and 1.1M owned their units. 135K of these households (8%) were deemed "poor". Overall, some 35% of these area households included kids under 18, and 82% of those families included two adults, the majority of which were married (85%). Blacks had a larger share of families with kids (39%) than non-blacks (34%). However, only 61% of black households with kids had two adults present, and only two-thirds of those were married. By comparison, 90% of non-black families with kids had 2 adults present and 90% of them were married couples. Owners tend to have more families with kids (36%) than renters (33%), and more of them have two adults at home (90% v 67%), and more of those adults are married (91% v 72%). The statistics are significantly worse for the poor, and particularly the black poor, comprising 47% of the poor, but only 25% of the total households. 46% of poor black households have kids compared to 25% of non-blacks, only 33% of them have two adults present (v 69%) and only 36% of those are married (v 77%).

At the local level, these trends are somewhat exaggerated. Only 27% of households have kids, and 59% of them are black. Only 51% of all black households have two adults living in (v 89% for non-blacks)and only 44% of the black adult pairs are married (v95%). In Prince George's County, 39% of all households have kids, and 58% of them are black. A higher share of these black households have two adults present (62%) and 77% of them are married. (v 89% and 88% for non-blacks). By comparison, 32% of Fairfax County's much richer households have kids, and only 8% are black. Of those few black families (also presumably better off), 72% have two adults at home (v 91% for the rest) and 78% are married (v 92%).


How Many Parents and Kids?

These next two charts show specifically the percent of married couple parents, 2-adult parents (mostly mom and grandmom?), and single parents (mostly moms).In both regional and local comparisons, however, it is the differences in numbers of single parent households with kids (shown in red on these charts) that stands out. 40% of all the region's black households have only one adult present, compared to 10% of non-blacks. The numbers are better for owners (22% v 8%) than for renters (55% v 17%), but worse for the poor, where 67% of all black households with kids have only a single parent compared to 31% for non-blacks. This carries over into the individual jurisdictions where 49% of all DC black families have a single parent compared to 11% for non-blacks; in PG County it's 33% v 11%, and in Fairfax, 29% vs 9%.

These numbers also reflect in the family balance between parents and kids, as shown on this simpler set of charts, showing the "parents per kid" for each of the 12 cases. While the regional (and national) norm is now just about two kids for two parents, (i.e., one parent per kid), this number drops to below half that for the black poor, and to only 0.6 for DC black families. It is a double whammy for the kids when the only parent is also frequently the least educated and least self-suifficient.

Household Income of Parents

The lack of parents among blacks and the poor also reflects in the vast differences in household income. On this chart, the national average household incomes are shown for married couples with and without kids, and for lone females, with and without kids. Means and medians are shown for completeness (the lower the median (middle case) compared to the mean (average case), the greater the number of cases at the lower end of the scale). Clearly, lone females bring home less than half the income of couples (since a "gender gap" still exists), and lone females with kids bring in less than those without kids (perhaps because they are younger, or less well schooled). NARPAC believes there is an inescapable correlation between household income and household education level, and a similar correlation between parents' total education level and the performance of their kids in school. We also believe that the significant difference in black and white earning power, documented elsewhere, flows from this same "education gap".

There is also an extraordinary range of household incomes at the regional and local level as shown in this chart pair. Non-black home owners had a median household income in 1998 of $80,000 while black homeowners got along on $60,000. But renters, generally associated with lesser means. Non-black renters settled for $40,000, while black renters brought in less than $30,000. And the truly poor, regardless of race manage only about $5000. It would be difficult to assume that the kids of parents across this dynamic range could possibly fare equally during their youth. This is brought out locally in the lower chart, where blacks and non-blacks brought home $51- 58,000 in Prince George's County, but blacks in DC had a median household income of about $22,000, while non-blacks reach $47,000. Fairfax is at the other extreme, when non-black households reached almost $80,000 while the very small number of black families did almost as well as they did in Prince George's.

Parents as Renters

The question of home renters vs home owners cannot be lightly dismissed. Home ownership is a basic mark of success in our capitalistic system, and the existence of large numbers of renters surely changes the nature of a community, as households struggle to keep rents down, rather than pressing to increase their own property values. Renters have significantly lower income (as shown above), and it has become a stigma generally associated with socioeconomic failing. Over half of the region's black households are renters, compared to 30% of non-blacks, and amongst those below the poverty line, 77% of blacks rent, and 57% of non-blacks do too. Similar statistics are shown in the lower left hand chart for the three different local jurisdictions. It is perhaps not surprising that DC is the only jurisdiction within this metro area that still has some 33,600 rent controlled housing units, and some 24,700 are lived in by blacks of very limited means. The issue of keeping rent controls is belabored by NARPAC elsewhere.


Kids Having Kids?

Preliminary data on the four million plus kids born across the US in 2001 also provide some insights into parental conditions. This next chart (to the left) shows how many kids are born to mothers of four different races by different 5-yr age groups, indicating first-born, second born, and so forth. This indicates quite clearly that the races seem to have different birthing schedules. Blacks and Hispanics are most likely to have kids before they reach the age of 15, and "peak" before they reach 25, while non-Hispanic whites and Asians have their most productive years from 25 to 35. The difference in parental maturity is likely to be substantial.
This is born out on the next chart which integrates the previous data and indicates the total share of kids born to mothers below a certain age. This again points out that blacks and Hispanics will have given birth to half of their kids (more or less) before reaching 25 (orange bars), while whites don't reach that half-way point for four more years (29), and Asians almost six more years (31). This same data can portray the total family mix added during a given year.

This suggests that Hispanics and whites are more likely to produce four kids than blacks, while Asians appear to have a stronger preference for 2-kid families. The race that tends to have the fewest kids also has parents most likely to be married and noticeably more mature. They are also likely to be better educated and wealthier when they produce their offspring. It appears to be a winning combination that is reflected in student performance where Asian kids regularly get better test scores than non- Hispanic whites.


Poor Parents = Poor Kids?

At the other end of the spectrum, black kids are far more likely to come from poor and less educated parents and are far less to ever know their father's influence. Numerous studies have shown that the teenage mothers are at a disadvantage. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, only one-third of teen mothers receive a diploma, and almost 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers end up on welfare. Their kids are more likely to have lower weights (and more resulting health problems), are more likely to do poorly in school, and are at greater risk of abuse and neglect. Sons of teen mothers are more likely to end up in prison, and teen daughters are more likely to become teen mothers themselves. And the percentage of unwed mothers is still rising. Equivalent statistics also show that teens with both parents around are half as likely to have sex by the age of 16 (22% v 44%), and their daughters are far less likely to give birth once or more while in their teens.

The chart below shows how DC stands among various clusters of US cities relative to available statistics on their birth rates. DC (red bars) has improved its standing somewhat over the past ten years (1999 v 1990) compared to a 50-city average (green bars), but still lag in many categories. However, DC's ranking appears somewhat better when compared against other cities with as high a black population, but not as well compared to cities with different racial mixes. This is consistent with the apparent cultural differences concerning sex and marriage. This material was compiled from the Kids Count project of the Casey Foundation.

Similarly Urban Institute studies concerning "stressful families" conclude that 50% of families at or below the poverty level experience stress; 49% of kids with both parents without high school degrees live under stress; and 37% of all kids living with single parents are under stress. This stress at home produces far lower levels of "school engagement" and four times the likelihood of emotional behavioral problems. 20% of kids in stressed families live with a "high aggravated" parent, and 41% have a parent exhibiting symptoms of poor mental health. While these studies were describing the problems of kids from disadvantaged families, they were also describing the conditions of their parents as well as the risks they will bring to their own families within a very few years!


Parents at Risk

In conclusion, these two charts indicate the magnitude of the problems of parents at risk in the raising of successful kids. While it is clearly an oversimplification to imply that all single moms, or all two-adult families, or all poor people, or all incomplete black families are doomed, they are certainly dealing with tougher odds than better off, married, two-parent, home-owning families. The non-green areas on the graphics to the left suggest the size of the problem (although they are at best schematic). In some jurisdictions, and particularly among the black community, as many as half of the family households are at risk of raising a new generation of kids very unlikely to succeed on the highly competitive American socioeconomic playing field.

There is virtually no question in NARPAC's collective mind, that the performance of kids trying to learn in school, and the performance of the school staffs in trying to teach them, must be viewed through the filter of the home life of those students, as primarily exemplified by the "performance" of their parent(s). Until the number of teenage births to disadvantaged, unmarried, school drop-outs is seriously reduced, there is a definite limit as to what can be expected from their offspring and their schools. Moreover, the cycle of poverty (and ignorance) is unlikely to be broken until there is a major effort in the longer range by local ministries to shape the morals of their congregations, and in the shorter range by the local governments to "recycle" their drop-outs with various kinds of adult education. See NARPAC's July '02 Editorial.

return to the top of the
page PARENTAL EDUCATION DATA BECOMES AVAILABLE BY PLANNING CLUSTER

In early 2004, the DC Agenda Project under the low-profile, but highly influential, Federal City Council, published a far more a detailed tabulation of useful demographic, economic, educational, and criminal information on DC's various subdivisions. Under the obtuse title of the "2004 Issue Scan", data are provided not only by the 39 planning clusters (plus one "etc.", designated "cluster 99"), but also by Wards, by DC total and that subset East of the Anacostia, and by the six special "targeted neighborhoods" that DC has singled out for priority economic redevelopment:

  • Benning Ridge/Ft. DuPont Park
  • Columbia Heights/Mt. Pleasant
  • Deanwood
  • Marshall Heights
  • Shaw, and
  • Southwest Weashington/Navy Yard

While NARPAC has not focused on those six depressed composite communities, they are all clearly at the wrong end of the scale for most aspects of the quality of life, and contribute to DC's below-national-average inner city statistics. For NARPAC's current purposes, these additional data further demonstrate the very large spread in basic parameters between the planning clusters, as was originally noted when the concept of "planning clusters" within DC emerged from DC's Strategic Neighborhood Action Plans (SNAPs). This is illustrated in the summary chart below which simply ranks the 40 clusters from highest to lowest for various basic jurisdictional statistics:

Far more important, NARPAC has taken twelve of the more crucial statistical indicators for socio-economic well-being in each planning cluster, and prepared scatter plots which show the trends as a function of total parent education. This builds on one conclusion of NARPAC's analysis of the "SNAPs" that "education, whether achieved during normal school years or thereafter, is the single most important determinant of prosperity." This issue is raised in a separate chapter on national data on education, poverty, and ignornance as well being the subject of the prior section of this chapter on parental demographics (its conclusions are just prior to the title of this new section). Click on the chart below to bring up a larger scale version:

As is NARPAC custom, general trend lines are added (this time in pink, and, as always, without academic precision) to illustrate the overall tendencies, without hiding the "scatter" which will inevitably accompany these relatively small-population clusters. This same approach is used in a similar NARPAC analysis considering the allocation of DC police personnel. The conclusions that two parents and better educated parents make for a more prosperous society with a better quality of life seem self-evident.

There are some NARPAC-unique terms among the parameters displayed above, including:

o "wealth product" is a NARPAC invention that combines 4x median household income with median housing value times percentage of homeowners. Wealth product per dependent is probably the best indicator of the kids' chances for a fully successful life;

o "parental and total education score" is another NARPAC convenience (used elsewhere on this web site) giving a score of "-1" for adults with less than a 9th Grade education; a "0" for not completely high school; a "1" for graduating from high school and going on; and "2" for graduating from college and going on. "Total parent education" combines adult education with average number of parents per family;

o "kids education score" combines math and reading scores between 3rd and 5th grades;

o "1-parent/married parents" is the ratio of single parents to married parents.

o "index crimes" are a standard USDoJ term summing violent and property crimes

o "low productivity housing" is either simply unoccupied, "vacant and/or abandoned", subsidized, or part of public housing.

NOTE: Additional analysis on this key subject is contained in NARPAC's 2005 summary and commentary on DC's latest DCPS Strategic Plan

Related Sections
• For general discussion of issues concerning public education in DC, and DCPS facilitiesplease refer back to the previous chapters.

• For more detailed information on relevant reports on DC public education and related topics please refer ahead to the next chapter.



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