Broken bootstraps: Black and Latino Youth in Transition

By Michelle Chen Aug 29, 2009

They started with nothing, worked tirelessly, saved every penny, pushed their kids hard in school and sent them straight into middle-class suburban bliss. American Dream realized. The end. New research from the Urban Institute paints a more complex picture of the old pull-yourself-up-by-your-boostraps ideal. In a study commissioned by Health and Human Services, researchers analyzed youth growing up under tough circumstances, measuring them on a scale of “connectedness” to the labor market and education system. At first glance, the data shows upward mobility among second-generation Latino youth. Latino youth (those with at least one immigrant parent) were more likely than their Black peers to be “consistently connected”–in school, working or both–and on par with whites. But not all "connections" are created equal. In education, second-generation Latino youth tend to stop at high school and are “far less likely than both white and black youth to complete a four-year degree program.” There’s another twist: Second-generation Latino youth actually fared better than third generation Latino youth (those with U.S.-born Latino parents). Does this mean that in the long run, the gains of the children of immigrants taper off when they start families of their own? It’s hard to draw clear conclusions, since the methodology of the study doesn’t capture possible differences between immigrant households from different cultures and regions. And since families with undocumented immigrants might be less likely to participate, the researchers say, it could "overstate the positive transition to adulthood for second-generation Latino youth." The analysis paints a gloomier picture of Black youth, who are far less likely than other groups to be consistently connected to school or employment. Compared to low-income whites, low-income Black youth are more likely have been "never connected" to work or school throughout their lives. About one in five poor Black youth were “initially connected”–engaged in productive activities at first then disconnected later in life. Among initially connected youth, the research suggests a link between dropping out of the labor market and "crime, arrest, and incarceration," or, for women, having a child by age 22. When you compare poor Black youth and poor white youth, Blacks are generally less likely to be involved with “risky” behaviors like drug use. And yet on average, they end up doing worse than their white counterparts anyway, showing huge disparities in employment and earnings in their early twenties. The researchers say income supports and targeted education programs could help close such disparities. But the thrust of the analysis is that the bootstraps story isn’t cut and dry. Many poor Black kids are tracked from an early age into massive structural barriers. Similarly, second-generation Latinos show some signs of “making it,” but down the line, according to the study, "the positive findings of second-generation Latino youth may diminish in their children." The statistics provide only a partial portrait of these youth, but the study does challenge the common myth that anyone with enough tenacity and smarts can move up in the world. For kids facing the steepest climb, inequality still exerts a powerful gravitational pull. Image: Urban Ministry