23 June 2006

Catch-22 situation

“More than any other country, America defines itself by a collective dream: the dream of economic opportunity and upward mobility. Its proudest boast is that it offers a chance of the good life to everybody who is willing to work hard and play by the rules. This ideal has made the United States the world’s strongest magnet for immigrants; it has also reconciled ordinary Americans to the rough side of a dynamic economy, with all its inequalities and insecurities…”
[The Economist, June 2006, ‘The rights and wrongs of the American model’]

I wonder what percentage of ordinary African Americans would share this sentiment wholeheartedly, even though they may have to reconcile themselves to it. For, even in the land of plenty, choice and opportunities are not always on the side of the African American. A quick example of this is the Black film industry. If you’ve read my previous post, ‘Black indie film… still in the red’, you would’ve realised that, for the African-American film director, notions of inequality and lack of opportunity are still major concerns.

Of course, there’s more to life than cinema, although cinema does reflect and represent life and culture. And, the goals of Black film directors are no different from those of the entire African-American population: That is, to find meaningful opportunities to achieve success – not just in industry talent awards and recognition, but in the business and economic sense. Not only should their be funds available to make films, their should be an audience large enough and a distribution network robust enough to bring in returns on investment.

Looks like a perfect Catch-22 situation.

But, let’s leave African-American cinema for a while and look at the African-American people. It’s a minority group, making up close to 13% of the US population. Although they share the same American Dream of equal opportunity, of achieving a life of prosperity based on effort and ability (as opposed to chance or birth), the history of the African-American people has been fraught with trouble. Their journey has been a continuous one, from slavery to freedom. And, even after 350 years, equal opportunity and a life of prosperity still seem to be illusory dreams.

African Americans still find it difficult to get ahead in life despite their hard work and talent. Of course, over generations, life has improved for the African American. They are no longer slaves and there is a greater acceptance of the African American by society. But, equal opportunity in the economic sense of distribution of income, health-care, housing, education, employment… is still not in their favour. What’s most disturbing about this status-quo is the fact that the future of the African-American people is being determined today.

According to a recent report, ‘Understanding Mobility in America’, by Tom Hertz of American University, “Education, race, health and state of residence are four key channels by which economic status is transmitted from parent to child.” And, when it comes to “the question of intergenerational mobility, or the degree to which the economic success of children is independent of the economic status of their parents…” it doesn’t look all that good for the African American.

Here are a few key findings from that report:

Children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich who have about a 22 percent chance.

Children born to the middle quintile of parental family income ($42,000 to $54,300) had about the same chance of ending up in a lower quintile than their parents (39.5 percent) as they did of moving to a higher quintile (36.5 percent). Their chances of attaining the top five percentiles of the income distribution were just 1.8 percent.

African American children who are born in the bottom quartile are nearly twice as likely to remain there as adults than are white children whose parents had identical incomes, and are four times less likely to attain the top quartile.

The difference in mobility for blacks and whites persists even after controlling for a host of parental background factors, children’s education and health, as well as whether the household was female-headed or receiving public assistance.

The report goes on to say, “A higher level of intergenerational mobility is often interpreted as a sign of greater fairness, or equality of opportunity, in a society… By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults.”

Another Catch-22 situation? May not be. I’m sure something can be done about this.

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