This paper examines patterns and trends in racial inequality in poverty and affluence over the 1959–2015 period. Analyzing data from decennial censuses and the American Community Survey, I find that that disparities have generally narrowed over the period. Nevertheless, considerable disparities remain, with whites least likely to be poor and Asians most likely to be affluent on the one hand, and blacks and American Indians much more likely to be poor and less likely to be affluent on the other—and Hispanics somewhat in between. Sociodemographic characteristics, such as education, family structure, and nativity explain some of the disparities—and an increasing proportion over the 1959–2015 period, indicative of the growing importance of disparities in human capital, the immigrant incorporation process, and the interaction between economic conditions and cultural shifts in attitudes toward marriage in explaining racial inequality in poverty and affluence. There also are still significant portions of the gaps that remain unexplained, especially for blacks and American Indians. The presence of this unexplained gap indicates that other factors are still at work in producing these disparities, although their effects have declined over time.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
We’re sorry, something doesn't seem to be working properly.
Please try refreshing the page. If that doesn't work, please contact support so we can address the problem.
Poverty rates using data from the American Community Survey are slightly higher than when using data from the Current Population Survey due to better coverage of income in the latter. Using ACS data likely does not introduce bias into the analysis on disparities since poverty rates are higher among all groups using ACS data.
The strong negative association between family size and affluence can be explained in large part by the fact that the thresholds for affluence increase with family size. For example, the threshold for affluence for a family with two adults and two children in 2015 was $120,180, while the threshold for affluence for a family with two adults and four children was $158,350.
Alba, R., & Nee, V. (2003). Remaking the American mainstream: Assimilation and contemporary immigration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Baker, R. S. (2015). The changing association among marriage, work, and child poverty in the United States, 1974–2010. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 1166–1178.
Bauer, TK. and Sinning, M. (2006). An extension of the Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition to non-linear models. RWI Discussion Papers, No. 49
Bean, F. D., Brown, S. K., & Bachmeier, J. D. (2015). Parents Without Papers: The progress and pitfalls of Mexican American Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Becker, G. S. (1994). Human capital: A theoretical and empirical analysis with special reference to education (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Blau, F. D., Ferber, M. A., & Winkler, A. E. (1998). The economics of women, men, and work (3rd ed.). Sadle River: Prentice Hall.
Blinder, A. S. (1973). Wage discrimination: Reduced form and structural estimates. Journal of Human Resources, 8, 436–455.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A. H. Halsey (Eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 487–511). New York: Oxford University Press.
Brown, S. K. (2007). Delayed spatial assimilation: Multigenerational incorporation of the Mexican origin population in Los Angeles. City and Community, 6(3), 193–209.
Cancian, M and Reed, D. (2008). “Family structure, childbearing, and parental employment: Implications for the level and trend in poverty.” Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Discussion Paper no. 1346-08
Cancio, A. S., Evans, T. D., & Maume, D. J., Jr. (1996). Reconsidering the declining significance of race: Racial differences in early career wages. American Sociological Review, 61(4), 541–556.
Charles, K. K., & Guryan, J. (2008). Prejudice and wages: An empirical assessment of Becker’s The economics of discrimination. Journal of Political Economy, 116(5), 773–809.
Hirschman, C., Wong, M. G. (1984). Socioeconomic gains of Asian Americans, blacks and Hispanics: 1960–1976. American Journal of Sociology, 90, 584–607.
Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 848–861.
Cherlin, A. J. (2009). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York: Vintage Books.
Chiswick, B. R. (1986). Is the new immigration less skilled than the old? Journal of Labor Economics, 4(2), 168–192.
Couch, K., & Daly, M. C. (2002). Black–White inequality in the 1990s: A decade of progress. Economic Inquiry, 40(1), 31–41.
Danziger, S., & Gottschalk, P. (1995). America unequal. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Dávila, A., Mora, M. T., & Hales, A. D. (2008). Income, earnings, and poverty: A portrait of inequality among Latinos/as in the United States. In H. Rodríguez, R. Sáenz, & C. Menjívar (Eds.), Latinas/os in the United States: Change the face of America (pp. 181–195). Boston: Springer.
Duncan, G. J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1997). Consequences of growing up poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Duncan, B., Hotz, V. J., & Trejo, S. J. (2006). Hispanics in the U.S. labor market. In M. Tienda & F. Mitchell (Eds.), Hispanics and the future of America (pp. 228–290). Washington: National Research Council.
Duncan, B., & Trejo, S. J. (2014). Assessing the socioeconomic mobility and Integration of U.S. immigrants and their descendants. The Annals of the American Academy of Political Social Science, 657, 108–135.
England, P. (2010). The gender revolution: Uneven and stalled. Gender and Society, 24(2), 149–166.
Fairlie, R. W. (2005). An extension of the Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition technique to logit and probit models. Journal of Economic and Social Measurement, 30, 305–316.
Fairlie, R. W., & Robb, A. M. (2007). Why are Black-Owned businesses less successful than white-owned businesses: The role of families, inheritances, and business human capital. Journal of Labor Economics, 25(2), 289–323.
Farley, R. (1984). Blacks and Whites. Narrowing the gap?. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Farley, R. (1996). The new American reality. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Feliciano, C. (2005). Educational selectivity in U.S. immigration: How do immigrants compare to those left behind? Demography, 42(1), 131–152.
Gao, G. (2016). Biggest share of whites in U.S. are Boomers, but for minority groups it’s Millennials or younger. Pew Research Center Fact Tank, New in the Numbers. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/07/biggest-share-of-whites-in-u-s-are-boomers-but-for-minority-groups-its-millennials-or-younger/.
Goldscheider, F., & Kaufman, G. (2006). Single parenthood and the double standard. Fathering, 4, 191–201.
Gottschalk, P., & Danziger, S. (2005). Inequality of wage rates, earnings and family income in the United States, 1975–2002. Review of Income and Wealth, 51(2), 231–254.
Gratton, B., & Gutmann, M. (2000). Hispanics in the United States, 1850–1990: Estimates of population size and national origin. Historical Methods, 33, 137–153.
Hirschl, T. A., & Rank, M. R. (2015). The life course dynamics of affluence. PLoS ONE, 10(1), e0116370. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0116370.
Hoynes, H. W., Page, M. E., & Stevens, A. H. (2006). Poverty in America: Trends and explanations. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), 47–68.
Hsin, A., & Xie, Y. (2014). Explaining Asian Americans’ academic advantage over whites. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 8416–8421.
Iceland, J. (2003). Why poverty remains high: The role of income growth, economic inequality, and changes in family structure, 1949–1999. Demography, 40(3), 499–519.
Iceland, J. (2013). Poverty in America: A handbook (3rd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Iceland, J. (2017). Race and ethnicity in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Isaacs, J. B., Sawhill, I. V., & Haskins, R. (2008). Getting ahead or losing ground: Economic mobility in America. Washington: The Brookings Institution.
Jiménez, T. R., & Horowitz, A. (2013). When White is just alright: How immigrants redefine achievement and reconfigure the ethnoracial hierarchy. American Sociological Review, 78(5), 849–871.
Kelly, R. R., Sweeney, M. M., & Wondra, D. (2015). The growing racial and ethnic divide in U.S. marriage patterns. The Future of Children, 25, 89–109.
Kim, C. H., & Sakamoto, A. (2010). Have Asian American men achieved labor market parity with white men? American Sociological Review, 75(6), 934–957.
Kochhar, R. and Cilluffo, A. (2018). Income inequality in the U.S. is rising most rapidly among Asians.” Pew Research Center report, Social and Demographic Trends, July 12. Retrieved November 2, 2018 from www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/07/12/income-inequality-in-the-u-s-is-rising-most-rapidly-among-asians/.
Lee, J., & Zhou, M. (2014). The success frame and achievement paradox: The costs and consequences for Asian Americans. Race and Social Problems, 6, 38–55.
Lichter, D. T., Qian, Z., & Crowley, M. L. (2005). Child poverty among racial minorities and immigrants: Explaining trends and differentials. Social Science Quarterly, 86, 1037–1059.
Liebler, C. A., & Ortyl, T. (2014). More than one million New American Indians in 2000: Who are they? Demography, 51, 1101–1130.
Loury, G. C. (1977). A dynamic theory of racial income differences. In P. A. Wallace & A. M. LaMond (Eds.), Women, minorities, and employment discrimination (pp. 153–186). Lexington: Heath.
Loury, G. C. (2002). The anatomy of racial inequality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Massey, D. S. (1996). The age of extremes: Concentrated affluence and poverty in the twenty-first century. Demography, 33(4), 395–412.
Massey, D. S. (2007). Categorically unequal: The American stratification system. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
McLanahan, S. (2004). Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography, 41(4), 607–627.
McLanahan, S., & Percheski, C. (2008). Family structure and the reproduction of inequalities. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 257–276.
Murray, C. (2012). Coming apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. New York: Crown Forum.
Neumark, D. (1988). Employers’ discriminatory behavior and the estimation of wage discrimination. Journal of Human Resources, 23, 279–295.
Oaxaca, R. L. (1973). Male–female wage differentials in urban labor markets. International Economic Review, 14, 693–709.
Oaxaca, R. L., & Ransom, M. R. (1994). On discrimination and the decomposition of wage differentials. Journal of Econometrics, 61, 5–21.
Patterson, O., & Fosse, E. (Eds.). (2015). The cultural matrix: Understanding black youth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Perlmann, J. (2005). Italians then, Mexicans now: Immigrant origins and second-generation progress, 1980 to 2000. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Piketty, T., & Saez, E. (2003). Income inequality in the United States. The Quarterly Journal of Economics CXVIII, 1, 1–39.
Proctor, B.D., Semega, J.L., and Kollar, M.A. (2016). Income and poverty in the United States: 2015. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey report, pp. 60–256
Rank, M. R., & Hirschl, T. A. (2001). Rags or Riches? Estimating the probabilities of poverty and affluence across the adult American life span. Social Science Quarterly, 82(4), 651–669.
Reeves, R. V. (2017). Dream Hoarders: How the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the Dust, why that is a problem, and what to do about it. Washington: The Brookings Institution.
Rothwell, J. T., & Massey, D. S. (2010). Density zoning and class segregation in U.S. Metropolitan Areas. Social Science Quarterly, 91, 1123–1143.
Ruggles, S., Genadek, K., Goeken, R., Grover, J., and Sobek, M. (2015). Integrated public use microdata series: Version 6.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. http://doi.org/10.18128/D010.V6.0.
Sakamoto, A., Goyette, K. A., & Kim, C. H. (2009). Socioeconomic attainments of Asian Americans. Annual Review of Sociology, 35, 255–276.
Sakamoto, A., Huei-Hsia, W., & Tzeng, J. M. (2000). The declining significance of race among American men during the latter half of the twentieth century. Demography, 37(1), 41–51.
Sakamoto, A., & Kim, C. H. (2013). The economic characteristics of Asian Americans in the 21st century. In Robert S. Rycroft (Ed.), The Economics of Inequality, Poverty, and Discrimination in the 21st Century, Volume 1—Causes. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
Sandefur, G. D., & Liebler, C. A. (1997). The demography of American Indian families. In G. D. Sandefur, R. R. Rindfuss, & B. Cohen (Eds.), Changing numbers, changing needs: American Indian demography and public health (pp. 196–217). Washington: National Academy Press.
Sandefur, G. D., & Scott, W. J. (1983). Minority group status and the wages of Indian and Black males. Social Science Research, 12, 44–68.
Sarche, M., & Spicer, P. (2008). Poverty and health disparities for American Indian and Alaska native children. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1136, 126–136.
Sawhill, I. V. (2006). Teenage sex, pregnancy, and nonmarital births. Gender Issues, 23, 48–59.
Smock, P., & Greenland, F. R. (2010). Diversity in pathways to parenthood: Patterns, implications, and emerging research directions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 576–593.
Snipp, C. M. (1992). Sociological perspectives on American Indians. Annual Review of Sociology, 18, 351–371.
Snipp, C. M. (1997). The size and distribution of the American Indian population: Fertility, mortality, migration, and residence. Population Research and Policy Review, 16, 61–93.
Snipp, C. M. (2005). American Indian and Alaska native children: Results from the 2000 census. Population Bulletin, Population Reference Bureau, August
Snipp, M. C., & Cheung, S. Y. (2016). Changes in racial and gender inequality since 1970. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 663, 80–98.
Snipp, C. M., & Hirschman, C. (2004). Assimilation in American Society: Occupational achievement and earnings for ethnic minorities in the United States, 1970 to 1990. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 22, 93–117.
Snipp, C. M., & Sandefur, G. D. (1988). Earnings of American Indians and Alaska natives: The effects of residence and migration. Social Forces, 66, 994–1008.
Solon, G. (1999). Intergenerational mobility in the labor market. In O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (Eds.), Handbook of labor economics (pp. 1761–1800). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Thiede, B. C., Kim, H., & Slack, T. (2017). Marriage, work, and racial inequalities in poverty: Evidence from the United States. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79, 1241–1257.
Thiede, B. C., Lichter, D. T., & Slack, T. (2018). Working, but poor: The good life in rural America? Journal of Rural Studies, 59, 183–193.
Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of trends in attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 1009–1037.
Trent, K., & South, S. J. (1992). Sociodemographic status, parental background, childhood family structure, and attitudes toward family formation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 54(2), 427–439.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2016a). Poverty status of people by family relationship, race, and hispanic origin: 1959 to 2015. Historical poverty tables- people, Table 2
U.S. Census Bureau. (2016b). Table 4. Poverty status of families, by type of family, presence of related children, race, and hispanic origin: 1959 to 2015. Current population survey, annual social and economic supplements, historical income inequality tables
U.S. Census Bureau. (2016c). 2015 ACS 1-Year estimates, downloaded from social explorer. Retrieved August 23, 2017 from www.socialexplorer.com/explore/tables.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2016d). Table F-1. Income limits for each fifth and Top 5 percent of families: 1947 to 2015. Current population survey, annual social and economic supplements, historical income inequality tables
Western, B., & Pettit, B. (2005). Black-White wage inequality, employment rates, and incarceration. American Journal of Sociology, 111(2), 553–578.
Wilson, W Julius. (1980). The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, W. J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Population Research Institute Center Grant, R24HD041025.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Iceland, J. Racial and Ethnic Inequality in Poverty and Affluence, 1959–2015. Popul Res Policy Rev 38, 615–654 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-019-09512-7
- Race and ethnicity