Poor whites feel worse about life than poor blacks, even though they’re better off

Down and out.
Down and out.
Image: AP images/David Goldman
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Rising inequality in the US is not isolated to one race or class, but the feeling of despair is more particular. Even though poor minorities—blacks in particular—carry with them a long history of oppression, they are far more hopeful than their poor white counterparts.

That’s the finding of a new book by Carol Graham, a researcher at the Brookings Institution that studies the impact of rising inequality on hopes and aspirations. The book—Happiness for All?: Unequal Lives and Hopes in Pursuit of the American Dream—concludes that the poorest people are suffering from crippling levels of hopelessness relative to the wealthy, which deters important investments in their and their children’s health and education. It also finds that hopelessness varies significantly between races.

Graham measured hopelessness through interviews and detailed Gallup data, which has been tracking US public opinion since 1935. She compiled the data in a ten-point optimism scale, showing that poor blacks are almost three times as likely to be a point higher than poor whites. Poor Hispanics are 1.2 times more likely to be a point higher on the optimism scale than poor whites.

And yet, poverty is more likely to follow black people from one generation into the next, according to the Urban Institute. Among poor black and white children born in the late 1960, black children are twice as likely as white children to be poor as an adult, according to the institute.

In fact, poverty is so persistent among black Americans that they are as likely to be poor as adults regardless of whether they grew up in poor families. Black and Hispanic Americans are still behind white Americans in terms of wealth and educational attainment.

Despite these setbacks, why are poor minorities more hopeful than poor whites? First, over the last few decades, compared to whites, minorities have made greater gains in education and life expectancy relative to their parents. As such, minorities are more likely to compare themselves to parents who were worse off than they are, while blue-collar whites are more likely to compare themselves with parents who were better off then they are. According to one analysis, 67% percent of African-Americans and 68% Hispanic without college degrees say they were better off then their parents in 2014, compared with 47% of whites.

Graham also notes that previous studies have shown a higher level of resilience among minorities than whites. In a 2016 study, blacks were less likely to report depressive symptoms or hopelessness, or try to commit suicide when faced with a stressful situation compared to whites.