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Well-Being of Black Middle Class Affected by Ties to Poor Siblings

November 21, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Sibling ties that cross the socioeconomic divide significantly affect the stability and well-being of black middle-class Americans. That is according to a new Northwestern University study that further illustrates the fragility of the black middle class.

Blacks teetering at the lower end of the middle-class spectrum are two and a half times as likely to have a low-income sibling as whites in the same socioeconomic bracket, the study shows. They also are four times as likely to have been poor when they were young, suggesting the relatively recent rise of many blacks to middle-class status.

“Basically the study shows that blacks in the lower middle class are much less likely to have kin to call on when an occasion arises in which they need, say, quick cash for a hospital bill or to fix a car,” says Northwestern's Mary Pattillo, chair and professor of sociology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and co-investigator of the study. “And they are much more likely to have kin calling upon them for financial and other assistance.”

The study, “Poverty in the Family: Race, Siblings and Socioeconomic Heterogenity,” by Pattillo and Colleen Heflin, University of Kentucky, will be published in the December issue of Social Science Research.

The research is among the latest of Pattillo's studies showing that fragility is embedded in the networks of middle-class blacks. Her earlier research shows that middle-class blacks are more likely than their white counterparts to come from poor families and to be affected by the economic, social and political influences of living near poor neighborhoods.

The new study locates individual attainment within the context of the extended family, suggesting an unrecognized layer of inequality by race that helps explain the literature showing the economic discrepancies between black and white Americans and the higher risk of downward mobility for African Americans.

“Adding family level disparities to documented income, occupational, residential and wealth inequalities for African Americans illustrates the continuing importance of race across the class spectrum,” Pattillo says.

The study emphasizes group-based disadvantage, rather than individual difference, arguing that poverty and middle-class status are located within different family contexts for black and white individuals.

“Studies that focus solely on the individual will tend to underestimate the extent of racial stratification in our society by missing the cross-class connections that characterize groups,” says Pattillo.

Blacks' tenuous hold on middle-class status also is greatly influenced by the relatively short socioeconomic distance between middle-class and poor blacks as compared to whites. “Blacks don't have to go as far as whites to fall on the other side of the class line,” Pattillo says.

The study also addresses the social isolation literature that suggests that inner-city residents are deprived of the mainstream social networks whose resources facilitate social and economic advancement in modern society.

Compared to whites, Pattillo and Heflin found, poor blacks are more socially isolated. But poor blacks' social isolation does not eliminate middle-class blacks from their family networks. In other words, the study disputes academic references to black-middle class disconnection and resulting snobbery.

“The fact that half of poor blacks have a sibling on the other side of the class divide poses some challenges to the social isolation literature that depicts poor blacks as separated from the mainstream,” the study concludes. “Indeed, the black mainstream is more likely to remain tied to poor blacks than is the comparable white population.”

Topics: Research