A series of articles on earnings inequality led two researchers to turn their attention to economic insecurity, asking how Americans understand changing opportunities and the American dream.
More than a decade of work has resulted in “Work in Black and White: Striving for the American Dream,” which is co-authored by Enobong Hannah Branch and Caroline Hanley and will be published by the Russell Sage Foundation this month. Hanley is associate professor of sociology at William & Mary, and Branch is senior vice president for equity and professor of sociology at Rutgers University.
“My co-author and I have been working together for more than 10 years,” Hanley said. “We published a series of articles together, mainly drawing on quantitative data to look at large-scale trends in earnings inequality, especially between Black and white women.
“Around 2013, we started working on economic insecurity as an organizing concept for understanding racial and gender differences in access to the types of jobs that are a foundation for economic security along with people’s experiences of security and insecurity.”
After securing a grant from the National Science Foundation, the pair embarked on a project combining in-depth interviewing with historical and demographic analysis. They talked with 79 middle-aged Black and white men and women to explore how their perceptions of security, opportunity and fairness are influenced by the stories American culture has told about the American dream — and about who should have access to it and who should not.
Their research focuses on the workplace and is particularly relevant in the current economic downturn as more and more Americans experience economic insecurity, according to Hanley.
“While it’s not new for working class and poor Americans to experience the anxieties that come with job loss or wages that are not high enough to maintain your standard of living, those feelings of economic insecurity are increasing among middle and even upper middle class Americans,” Hanley said.
“That is a newer experience for people with access to higher education, especially white college graduates.”
The fact that Americans are experiencing more economic insecurity at higher income levels and at higher levels of educational attainment is the new trend she and Branch tried to bore into and understand.
“One of the core arguments we’re making is that while well-educated Black and white Americans experience high degrees of economic insecurity, they understand the sources of that economic insecurity differently based, in part, on racially distinct histories of access to the American dream,” Hanley said.
Although the American public and policymakers tend to focus on education as the key institution that needs to be improved in order to create opportunity and access to good jobs, the book argues that people put too much emphasis on discussing education at the expense of focusing on other policy choices that are also important, according to Hanley.
“Economic inequalities between people with and without a college degree have never been greater,” Hanley said. “So you certainly don’t want to be on the wrong side of that educational divide. But at the same time, just getting that degree is not a foolproof insurance policy against economic insecurity.
“For Black Americans it never has been. And increasingly for white Americans that’s the case as well, that a college degree doesn’t guarantee security and stability.”
Respondents across racial and gender lines expressed that they want hard work and innovative thinking and skills to be rewarded, but they don’t have a clear sense of what it would take to actually make that part of the American dream a reality, she said. The authors discuss “invisible” policy choices that are available to create more widely available access to employment opportunities, and suggest that employment and labor law needs to be updated for the 21st century.
Delving into how racial groups see one another in the opportunity landscape, the research frames narratives about affirmative action, networks and other factors affecting job prospects. It also draws a picture of why Americans see their situation a certain way.
“Black Americans are objectively more economically insecure than white Americans with the same qualifications and characteristics,” Hanley said. “But they’re also a little bit more optimistic about the future and the future of the American dream than are white Americans because both groups are looking to the past to develop expectations about the future. Black Americans look to the past and see more restricted opportunity that they and earlier generations faced, and so that makes them a little bit more optimistic that things are getting better.
“Whereas white Americans look to the past, and they are mourning the loss of economic security. Even though both groups are economically insecure and white Americans are more economically secure than are Black Americans, they’re also more pessimistic because they’re very much mourning the loss of something that they once had.”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist