Prosperity Watch Issue 36, No. 2: North Carolina's children of color face significant barriers to climbing socioeconomic ladder

Hard work and skill just are not enough to achieve success and climb the socioeconomic ladder for too many Americans in today’s economy. All too often, parents’ financial standing, educational attainment, and especially race play decisive roles in helping some of our citizens climb that ladder, while others remain mired at the bottom. In fact, most children of color fare poorer on average than their counterparts on key milestones from birth to early adulthood, according to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And unfortunately, too many Tarheel children are in the same boat—children who are African American, American Indian, and Hispanic are far less well positioned for success than white and Asian children, according to the report, suggesting that hard work is no guarantee that everyone has an equal shot at getting head.

The report examined 12 indicators that broadly measure a child’s positioning for success, and these indicators fall within four distinct areas: early childhood, education and early work, family supports, and neighborhood context. Authors of the report created a Race for Results Index for each of the 50 states and nation, with the index ranging from a scale of 1 (worst) to 1,000 (best) standardized scores. As illustrated in the chart below, there is a considerable racial opportunity gap in the Old North State. Asian and Pacific Islander children have the highest index score (746). At the opposite end of the index sits African-American children who have the worst score (346) of all racial groups.

Building on top of a strong body of research, the Annie E Casey report indicates that racial disparities are reducing equality of opportunity. Racial disparities are present at the time of birth but grow deeper during ages 3 to 5 years—the period of life that “lays the foundation for later learning and success”—and considerably larger by time children enter the 4th grade.  Among North Carolinians, some of the starkest racial disparities in the data appear in early adulthood.  The percent of young adults ages 25 to 29 who have an associate’s degree or higher ranges from 64.9 percent among Asians and Pacific Islanders to a low of 11.2 percent among Hispanics and Latinos. Evidence of the accumulative effect of years of disadvantage is clear in the data. Removing the barriers that are blocking pathways to the middle class and success for children of color is an economic priority.

With hard work, every child should have an equal shot at the American Dream regardless of their parents’ financial standing, their neighborhood, or other circumstances outside of their control. As we quickly shift towards a majority people of color state, North Carolina’s ability to compete for jobs and build broadly shared prosperity depends on fulfilling this very basic American tenet. Our state’s policymakers should be concerned that this tenet is not becoming reality for too many of North Carolina’s children.

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