Issues of racial inequality and injustice are center stage in America today—especially the position and treatment of Black Americans. This report presents evidence on long-term differences in opportunity by race. Previous research showed large racial gaps in poverty and mobility across two generations. We take a longer view, examining patterns of multigenerational poverty for Black and White Americans across three generations, drawing on data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.
We find that Black families are over 16 times more likely than White families are to experience three generations of poverty (defined as the bottom fifth of the income distribution). Three-generation poverty occurs among one in 100 Whites, but it describes the experience of one in five Black adults. Black Americans are 41 percent more likely to be in third-generation poverty than White adults are to be poor. The grandparents of Black adults had much lower incomes than the grandparents of their White counterparts had; this initial inequality has been compounded by lower rates of subsequent Black upward mobility out of poverty and by greater Black downward mobility. These patterns mean that poor Black and White adults today have dramatically different family poverty trajectories. Half of Blacks in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have parents and grandparents who were also poor, compared to just 8 percent of poor Whites. We show that the longer the time frame, the starker the racial gaps. More than half a century since the civil rights victories of the 1960s, these racial gaps in poverty and opportunity remain a cause for national shame.