Due to differential treatment by the society, minorities have lower access to the opportunity structure (Assari 2018a
). As a result, minorities may have more difficulties leveraging their human capital resources, such as education, to escape poverty, compared to the majority groups. In this view, racial minority groups will have a lower chance than the dominant and socially privileged group to transform their human capital potentials, such as education, to tangible outcomes such as health (Baughcum et al. 1998
Due to labor market preferences and practices, minorities have a lower chance of obtaining employment, obtaining high-paying employment, and receiving a promotion in their current employment at each educational level (Spalter-Roth 2007
; Proudford and Nkomo 2006
). Even at higher education levels, minorities are exposed to high levels of discrimination (Williams et al. 2003
), which reduces the protective effects of their education (Assari and Caldwell 2017
; Hudson et al. 2012
) and increases their risk for undesired health outcomes (Williams et al. 2003
). Lower quality of education in poor, primarily Black, neighborhoods results in lower income (Card and Krueger 1992a
), which in turn brings less gains for the minority groups compared to the majority group (Frisvold and Golberstein 2013
). In addition, differential treatment by the healthcare system, low availability of resources (e.g., health care), and high levels of stigma and historical mistrust, operate as barriers against use of healthcare services when needed (Jacobs et al. 2006
). All these are due to structural racism and diminish the effects of the very same SES indicators on the lives of minorities compared to Whites (Bailey et al. 2017
A growing body of research shows that education may better translate to health gain for Whites than Blacks (Assari 2018a
; Assari and Lankarani 2016a
). In a study among older adults, high education had a smaller effect on changing drinking patterns for Black than Whites (Hummer and Lariscy 2011
). In other studies, employment (Assari 2017a
), neighborhood quality (Assari and Caldwell 2017
), social contacts (Assari 2017b
), income (Assari 2018c
), self-efficacy (Assari 2017c
; Assari and Lankarani 2017b
), affect (Assari et al. 2016b
; Assari and Burgard 2015
; Assari 2017e
), and sleep (Assari et al. 2017
) all had larger health effects for Whites than Blacks. Assari et al.
) used 15 years of follow-up data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS)] and compared Black and White families for the protective effects of maternal education and family structure at birth on subsequent body mass index (BMI) of youth at age 15. The study revealed a race by maternal education interaction on BMI, indicating smaller protective effects of maternal education for Black compared to White families. This study was one of the first studies to show that Blacks’ diminished return also holds for transgenerational transition of SES from parents to the offspring (Assari et al. 2018
To better understand the Blacks’ Diminished Return theory (Assari 2018b
), defined as smaller protective effects of SES on the health of Black than White families (Assari 2018a
), this study examined racial differences in the effects of highest education level of parents on a family’s ability to escape poverty (i.e., income-to-needs ratio) in a large nationally representative sample of American families with children ages 17 years or less.
We found racial differences in the effects of parental education on the families’ ability to escape poverty (i.e., income-to-needs ratio). Black families have more difficulties, compared to their White counterparts, in translating parental education for upward social mobility and to escape poverty.
Education better serves White compared to Black families as highly educated Black families are a higher risk of staying at poverty when compared to highly educated White families. The results of this study provide an explanatory mechanism for the Blacks’ Diminished Return theory, defined as systematically smaller health gains of SES for Black than White families (Assari et al. 2016a
; Assari and Lankarani 2016a
; Assari 2015b
). These results explain the growing literature on unequal gain of education on health outcomes for White and Black families and individuals. Education (Assari and Lankarani 2016a
), employment (Assari 2017a
), neighborhood quality (Assari and Caldwell 2017
), and social contacts (Assari 2017b
) generate smaller gains in life expectancy for Black than they do for White adults.
The major contribution of this study was to extend this literature to a national sample of parents and children. In a new study, Black children did not show a reduction in their risk of being overweight due to an increase in parental education. This pattern was different from White children who showed a protective effect of family SES on risk of being overweight (Assari 2018d
). Assari et al.
) used 15 years of follow-up data from the FFCWS and showed that maternal education and family structure at birth protected White but not Black youth against obesity at age 15. Differential effects of parental education on families’ poverty status may explain differential health effects of family SES on the health of Black and White offspring.
As this study shows, comparable educational attainment is more protective against household poverty for White than Black families. Society consistently promotes the gains of the socially privileged majority group (Whites). At the same time, specific needs of the economically disadvantaged, marginalized and racial minority groups may be ignored. Literature on children (Assari et al. 2018
; Assari 2017f
), adults (Assari 2016
), and older adults (Assari and Lankarani 2016b
; Assari et al. 2016a
) have all shown that SES indicators such as education better promote outcomes of Whites than Blacks. While multiple mechanisms may be involved, the current results propose the differential transgenerational effect of SES
to help family to escape poverty as a mechanism. Despite obtaining high education levels, Black families are more likely to stay poor.
The results reported here suggest that processes involved in shaping Blacks’ Diminished Return are intergenerational and start early in life. Such early processes are neglected causing racial health disparities in childhood (Assari et al. 2018
; Assari 2017f
). That is, differential patterns of the effects of parental education on household economic status may result in differential health status of offspring decades later.
Of course, these results do not suggest that Blacks prefer to stay poor or Blacks are unable to efficiently use their education to avoid poverty. Such an argument would be blaming the victim for their circumstances (Adler and Stewart 2009
). Rather, society’s differential treatment of racial groups is responsible for these differential gains. Structural racism, segregation, and discrimination across subsystems of the American society result in a systemic diminished return for minorities including Blacks (Assari 2018a
). High prevalence of societal barriers hinders Blacks abilities to leverage their education for upward social mobility. In the current system, Blacks do not stay poor because they are unmotivated. By making upward social mobility more challenging and costly for Blacks and other minority groups (Fuller-Rowell and Doan 2010
; Fuller-Rowell et al. 2015
), the American system fails highly educated Black families who are determined to climb the social ladder. In the U.S. economic system, maximum gains of the White majority and privileged group are guaranteed, and the gain for many minority groups are smaller (Assari 2018a
). This phenomenon offers an explanation for the ongoing widening of economic inequalities in the U.S. As the rich becomes richer and the poor becomes poorer, the Black–White economic and health gap grows.
Economic hardship and poverty of Blacks is not due to lack of aspiration. This is evidenced in our findings which assert that Black families who attain high education still face blocked opportunities; they must overcome systematic barriers, which reduce their chance of success and increase their stress level. High SES does not generate health in the presence of a high level of discrimination (Assari 2016
). We argue that under pervasive racism and discrimination (e.g., an environment that is difficult to control) that is a part of the race-and-color–aware U.S. society, high aspirations may even be detrimental to the health of Blacks. Some research has also shown that high SES may be a vulnerability factor for Black families (Assari 2018a
; Hudson et al. 2012
). Hudson et al.
) have shown that discrimination is most costly in the presence of high SES, a finding that has been replicated for Black youth (Assari and Caldwell 2017a
). Of course, the solution is not to reduce aspirations in Blacks, but to equalize the cost of upward social mobility across social groups so that all groups pay the same cost for climbing the social ladder (Assari and Caldwell 2017a
; Fuller-Rowell et al. 2015
We attribute the differential gains observed in this study to racism and discrimination, however, there are studies that disagree with this argument. A study conducted by Neal and Johnson
) attributed the Black–White wage differences to premarket factors, rather than labor market discrimination. Their study did not show much residual market discrimination, after skills and abilities were taken into account. Neal and Johnson, however, did not collect data, but ran a parsimoniously specified wage equation that controlled for skill with the score of a test administered as teenagers prepared to leave high school and embark on work careers or postsecondary education. Although the test score explained the Black–White wage gap for women, these skills could not completely explain the gaps for men. Neal and Johnson
) concluded that the Black–White wage gap primarily reflects a skill gap, which is in turn is traceable to racial differences in family background.
Another possible explanation for our findings is that the quality of education received by Blacks is not as good as the quality of education received by Whites—regardless of the level of education attained. This could be due to inefficiencies in the public school system in inner cities and the inability for Blacks to pay for a higher quality of public education (by moving to a higher income neighborhood) or private education at the K–12 level, and the inability to afford as good of a college education as Whites. This is another avenue through which race would moderate the impact of educational attainment.
Limitations and Future Research
Our study had several limitations. The study was cross-sectional in design, thus no causative conclusion is possible. Education and poverty have bidirectional associations. While education attainment reduces risk of poverty, poverty reduces people’s chance to attain higher education. Thus, there is a need for replication of the findings using a longitudinal design to uncover the temporal order between changes in parental education and household poverty status. Such studies require multiple observations of parental education and household income over long periods of time across multiple social groups.
We did not have data on years of schooling. The main independent variable of interest—education—was operationalized as less than high school, high school graduate, and more than high school. The top category, in particular, was very heterogeneous, as it mixes people who have some college, college graduates, and people with advanced degrees. The graduate school is very heterogeneous, and economic returns of a MA in education, MBA, EDD or a PhD in biomedical engineering and MD are very different. As within this category, Whites have probably higher educational attainment than Blacks, not the differences observed are due to differential returns to education (i.e., omitted variable bias). Possible differences between individuals who completed eight years of schooling and those who completed 11 years of schooling could not be studied in this paper, as they were both in the same category. In addition, interpretation of the “highest level of education attained” may or may not be the “highest level of education completed.” In addition, we could not distinguish between type of institution attended (e.g., community college vs. elite university) or the major. There are differences in employment and earnings outcomes by these variables. If Whites are more likely to choose higher-paying majors than Blacks (e.g., engineering vs. sociology), then this again represents omitted variable bias. Future research should investigate the effects of years of schooling instead of the categorical education outcome as the independent regressor.
In addition, the models controlled for age and gender of children, but not of adults, which would be more important. We could also not include covariates that have been linked to poverty (e.g., region, metropolitan status, etc.) Furthermore, “distribution of the ages of all children in the household” is an important and relevant factor, more than the age and gender of an index child. The results should be replicated for the household income to household size ratio, which provides additional insight than the 1–8 measure of poverty.
Hispanic Whites and Hispanic Blacks were not excluded in his analysis. Thus, Hispanic ethnicity may have confounded our estimates of the moderation of race on the association between educational attainment and poverty. Since Hispanic Whites are also a minority group, they also experience a smaller impact of educational attainment than Non-Hispanic Whites. This will understate the magnitude of our estimates on the interaction between education and race. As this study only included Blacks and Whites, other racial minority groups should be included in future studies. There is a need to replicate these findings across a wide range of marginalized groups such as immigrants, Native Americans, and Hispanics.
There is also a need to study how other contextual factors, such as state and local policies, alter Blacks Diminished Return. Thus, future studies should not limit their measures to individual level factors, but should include contextual factors that families are embedded in. There is a need for future research to study local, state, and federal policies that minimize Blacks Diminished Return. Third, there is a need to study differential effects for other SES indicators such as family structure, income, employment, and wealth. In addition, relative importance of the labor market and educational system in causing Blacks’ Diminished Return is unknown.
This study used data from the National Survey of Children’s Health.. Replications are needed on larger studies such as American Community Survey (ACS) or the Current Population Survey (CPS), which are the source of official poverty statistics in the United States.
Due to these conceptual and methodological limitations, the results presented here should be interpreted with caution. Despite these limitations, this study is one of the first studies that extend the Blacks’ Diminished Return to the effects of education attainment of parents on household poverty status.