Black middle class is shrinking, Census reports Increase in two-income families, loss of blue-collar jobs are seen as causes

September 25, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Two economic trends wedging rich from poor in the United States -- the rise of the two-income family and the loss of blue-collar jobs -- have widened the gulf between the haves and have-nots in the black population, a new Census Bureau report shows.

The percentage of high-income black families more than doubled from 1967 to 1990, according to the new figures. At the same time, the proportion of black families at the lowest income level grew by 50 percent. In 1990, more than one black family in nine earned less than $5,000 a year.

On the whole, there has been a steady increase in median family incomes for blacks. But the rate of that increase has slowed recently.

The widening gulf has meant a marked decrease in the proportion of black families in the middle-income ranges.

For instance, in 1967, the earliest year for which the report gives any statistics, 16 percent of all black families fell in the second-to-the-lowest income category, with family incomes of $5,000 to $10,000 in 1990 dollars. By 1990, the proportion of black families in this category had declined to 14.1 percent.

In the $10,000- to $25,0000-range, there was a decrease from 41 percent of black families to 30 percent. Only in the lowest income category and in the income ranges above $35,000 did the proportion of blacks increase.

The Census figures dovetail with a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, showing that Southern and Midwestern states where blacks are a large percentage of the population were more likely to show rapid increases in income disparity.

"The depeening of poverty, which affects whites and Hispanics as well, is particularly true among a substantial segment of the black community, and is cause for real concern," said Robert S. Greenstein, the center's executive director.

Mr. Greenstein and other economists and sociologists said they expect the trends to continue, particularly in a sluggish economy. "We're going to see continued expansion of welfare rolls and government assistance programs at a time when there is considerable pressure to cut those demands," said Chris Winship, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University.

"The real question is whether the government is going to ask the increasingly wealthy to support the increasingly poor."

Other economists see the figures simply as a reflection of the dramatic decrease in the number of two-parent families in the black community. According to the Census report, more than three-quarters of black families were headed by married couples in 1950. In 1990, that proportion had declined to 50 percent, and in 1991 it dipped to 47.8 percent. About 46 percent of all black families last year were headed by single women.

"There are two things driving these numbers," said Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a research center in Washington. "First is the economy. But there is a second, underlying trend which is much more powerful. That is the breakdown of low-income families, and not just black families.

"Americans as a whole are not marrying at the rates they used to," Mr. Besharov said.

Among middle-class blacks, the dominant factor contributing to rising incomes was the tendency to have more than one wage earner in a family. The median income of black families in which both husband and wife worked went from $28,700 in 1967 to $40,038 in 1990, an increase of 40 percent. For white families in the same period, incomes rose 17 percent, from $40,040 to $47,247.

These gains for two-income black families brought them closer to similar white families in overall income. In 1967, two-income black families earned 72 cents for every dollar earned by their white counterparts. In 1990, that figure had risen to 85 cents.

However, Mr. Greenstein pointed out that the average income among the top 20 percent of black families was $61,213, about 64 percent of the average income of the top fifth of all white families, which was $95,042.

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