Q&A: A Deep Dive Into the Income Gap Between Black and Non-Black Virginians

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The socioeconomic gap between Black Americans and non-Black Americans hasn’t changed considerably in a half-century, fueling assertions that many social institutions disproportionately exclude Blacks and are structurally racist, Hamilton Lombard said.

Lombard, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, recently explored why the income gap between Black Virginians and other Virginians exists. In a new report, he examines a wide range of factors, including education.

UVA Today caught up with Lombard to hear about his findings.

Q. What made you want to delve into this topic?

A. In my work as a demographer at UVA, I frequently work with and provide race statistics to data users who need them. From working with race statistics over the years, I have learned that while the data may appear relatively straightforward, race statistics are usually more nuanced than they initially appear. Given how frequently such statistics are analyzed and presented, particularly for Black Americans in recent years, I wanted to examine some of the nuances in race data to see if they can help in understanding why the socioeconomic gap between most Black Virginians and non-Black Virginians has been so persistent.   

Q. By some measures, you say data indicates that the income gap has actually grown wider since 1970. Is it surprising to see that the civil rights era reforms and the Great Society programs from the 1960s haven’t closed the gap?

A. Yes, it is surprising that the income gap between Black Virginians and non-Black Virginians has not shrunk over the past 50 years, particularly when you consider that same income gap in Virginia closed considerably in the decades before 1970. While the civil rights era and the Great Society programs improved the lives of many Black Virginians, the median income for Black families in Virginia has remained stagnant at close to 70% of Virginia’s median family income since 1970.

By some measures, particularly home ownership, the socioeconomic gap between Black Virginians and non-Black Virginians has grown wider over the past 50 years. Home prices in Virginia have risen considerably faster than Black Virginians’ incomes since 1970, causing the home ownership rate for Black Virginians to decline over the last half-century. In a third of Virginia counties, the home ownership rate for Black Virginians is lower today than it was before the Second World War, including in some of its largest counties, such as Chesterfield and Fairfax.

Q. How does education play into everything?

A. One encouraging fact is that among Black and non-Black Virginians with similar levels of education, the income gap is smaller, and in some cases close to non-existent. While this might show an area of promise, the persistent gap in educational attainment between Black and non-Black Virginians may work against progress.

In recent decades, an individual’s level of educational attainment is significant in getting a job and an appropriate salary. As a result, the share of Black and non-Black Virginians completing high school and enrolling in post-secondary education has soared. For example, because more Virginians are attending college, the number of first-year students enrolling at UVA in the fall has risen by more than 50% in the last 30 years, even though Virginia’s population between ages 18 and 22 only rose by 14% during the period.

Though the share of Black Virginians between ages 25 and 35 with at least a bachelor’s degree has more than doubled since 1990, from 13% to 28%, Virginia’s educational attainment gap has not declined because the share of non-Black Virginians with at least a bachelor’s degree has risen just as quickly.

Q. Why did you call your findings pertaining to Black immigrant families “unusual”?

A. Black immigrants and their children make up a substantial portion of Virginia’s Black population. Virginia has twice as many immigrants today from Africa than it does from Mexico.

If you compare the U.S. immigrant and native populations across racial and ethnic groups, in general those born in the U.S. have higher levels of both educational attainment and income. For example, Hispanic immigrants in Virginia typically have lower levels of income and educational attainment while native-born Hispanic Virginians, who are mostly second- and third-generation Americans, on average have considerably higher incomes and educational attainment than their parents and grandparents.

Among Black Virginians the opposite is true: Black immigrants are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree and earn substantially more than native Black Virginians whose families have been in the U.S. for centuries. Black immigrants in Virginia with a bachelor’s degree also earn more than non-Black Virginians with a bachelor’s degree. The rapid growth in Virginia’s Black immigrant population in recent decades has likely prevented the income gap in Virginia from growing larger.

Q. Any other things you found during the course of your research that surprised you?

A. As basic as it seems, the educational attainment gap has led to a significant amount, if not most, of the income gap between Black and other Virginians. Yet it is not only whether or not Black students go on to college.

A number of U.S. Department of Education studies have shown that lower levels of college preparation in high school cause Black students to be less likely to enroll in or graduate from college. Less preparation for college also causes Black students to be underrepresented in competitive college majors that typically lead to higher-paying jobs, which may partially explain why a small income gap still exists for Black college graduates in Virginia.

This suggests that an educational attainment gap, leading to a later income gap, may also be an educational opportunity gap. It is a complex problem to examine.

Q. Overall, what was your biggest takeaway from your research?

A. While different levels of educational attainment have helped prevent Virginia’s income gap from shrinking, there is no single reason why Black Virginians typically earn less than non-Black Virginians.

Another relevant demographic factor that has helped maintain the income gap may be reflected in an increase in the share of Black Virginia families led by a single parent between 1970 and 2018, from 29% to 47%, compared to from 12% to 19% for other Virginia families. Single parenthood can dampen earning potential, introduce real costs in the form of child care, and limit flexibility to pursue advanced education or work demanding unreliable hours.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

A. The same trends that are causing the U.S. population to become more diverse are occurring within the Black population, which is making it increasingly difficult to compare socioeconomic characteristics for Black Americans over time or with other racial groups.

Since 1995, the share of Black Americans who identified as Hispanic, multi-racial, or as an immigrant or a child of immigrants tripled, from 10% to 30%. By the 2040s, only a minority of Blacks are likely to identify as Black alone and have ancestry in the U.S. that predates the civil rights era.

As the U.S. Black population grows increasingly diverse, it will likely become more difficult to see the income gap between many Black Americans and other Americans in demographic data.

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