[Robinson is a PhD graduate student at Harvard in political science and a statistics researcher.  His report draws on U.S. Census Bureau data from 1965-1995]


by A.J. Robinson, February 1997 The major question to be considered is whether or not the Black community is economically better off than we were in 1965.Like most questions, the answer depends upon your perspective.

Contemporary perspectives on the state of the Black middle class are misleading. It is commonly held that:

* The Black middle class is not only larger than ever, but that it is the fastest growing and largest segment within the Black community.

* The Black middle class has doubled and even quadrupled since 1965.

* The Black middle classes are doing better than they were in 1965.

Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau provide a different interpretation.

1. Problems with current interpretations of the data:

* There is no standard definition of the Black middle class.

Most define it as families with annual incomes (before taxes) between $15,000 and $49,999. This puts the number of Black families at 13.3 million or 46.7% of all Black families in 1994.

I believe a more accurate definition of the Black middle class places the income range between $25,000 and $49,999. I say this because the poverty line for a family of four, in 1995, was $15,569 ($15,141 in 1994). It seems disingenuous to categorize those making slightly more than the poverty line as members of the Black middle class. Using this income range puts the number of Black families in the middle class at 9 million or 31.9% of all Black families in 1994. (Keep in mind that 32.3% of all Black families earned incomes below the poverty line during the same period - 1994).

This is clearly the largest segment of the Black population, as the graph below illustrates:

However, is the Black middle class ($25,000 - $49,999) the fastest growing segment of the Black population?

The answer is NO.

Dividing the Black population into quintiles (20% intervals), the fourth 5th and the highest 5th are the fasting growing segments. That is, the upper class , has experienced the fastest rate of growth since 1965.

From the graph above, it is clear that not only is the Black middle class (using the misleading income range just to be sure) not the fastest growing segment, it has been steadily declining since 1970.

* Evenusing the misleading income range of $15,000 - $49,999, the percentage of Black families within this bracket in 1970 was 56.3% or 11,667,612 people. But, in 1994, the percentage had declined to 46.7% or 13,309,033 people; a decline of 9.6%!

* On the other hand, those families making between $50,000 and $74,999 saw an increase of 3.9% over the period from 1970 and 1994.

Those families earning $75,000 and above saw an increase of 5.7% over the period from 1970 to 1994.

The true winners have been those classified (even as far back as 1970) as the upper class. The percentage of the Black population in the middle class is shrinking.

So, how can we claim that the Black middle class has doubled?

* The only plausible explanation I can find is that those who make such claims are looking only at the sheer numbers of black families earning between $15,000 and $74,999.

But using sheer numbers, the "true" Black middle class has NOT doubled. In 1970, the number of families earning between $15,000 and $49,999 reached 11,667,612. In 1990, the number grew to 13,309,033; hardly a doubling!

What's more, there has been a squeezing effect: the middle class present in 1970 has been squeezed over a 20 year period, pushing families above and below the middle class lines. The promising news is that more families have been pushed upward, but we have not filled their places with families from the lower classes.



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