Upward Economic Mobility for African Americans Is Rarer Than Most People Believe

A new study by researchers at Ohio State University and Columbia University finds that Americans consistently believe that poor African Americans are more likely to move up the economic ladder than is actually the case.

The authors asked participants to estimate the chances that a randomly selected child born to a family in the lowest income quintile would rise to one of the four higher income quintiles. They made two predictions, one for a White child and one for a Black child. Results showed that participants overestimated upward mobility for the White child by about 5 percent, but overestimated mobility for the Black child by about 16 percent. It wasn’t just White Americans who held these misperceptions. Black participants were similarly inaccurate in their estimation of a Black child’s probability of moving out of poverty.

“It’s no surprise that most people in our society believe in the American Dream of working hard and succeeding economically,” said Jesse Walker, co-author of the study and assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “But many people don’t know how much harder it is for African Americans to achieve that dream than it is for White people.”

Why is this important?  Dr. Walker explains that “if you think someone is more likely to move up the economic ladder than they actually are, it is a lot easier to blame them for not being successful. These misperceptions may make people less likely to support policies that may actually help African Americans move up and address the large racial wealth gap that exists in America.”

The good news in the study was that making people aware of economic racial disparities, or merely having them reflect on the unique challenges that Black Americans face in the United States, helped people calibrate their beliefs about economic mobility.

The full study, “Americans Misperceive Racial Disparities in Economic Mobility,” was published on the website of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. It may be accessed here.

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