Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Socioeconomic Inequality and Mobility in Early Adulthood
Table 2 examines key indicators of educational and economic inequality. The data are again presented for the ten largest ethnic groups of foreign parentage in the United States, broken down by generational status (1.0, 1.5, and second), compared with native-parentage white and black young adults. The left panel of the table presents data on those at the two poles of educational attainment—college graduates and high school dropouts—and the ratio of the two. The right panel of the table presents the percentage of young adults who are low-wage laborers, below the poverty line, and lacking private health insurance (itself a reflection of job instability in early adulthood).13
As the data make clear, these diverse groups of newcomers, who account for a substantial share of all young adults in the United States, are situated at the polar ends of the opportunity structure. Educational, occupational, and economic inequalities between native-parentage whites and blacks—the quintessential "color line" in American life—seem narrow compared with the gulf that now separates most Asian and Hispanic young adults. For example, native whites are twice as likely to have college degrees as blacks (35 to 18 percent), while dropout rates among blacks are 7 points higher (18 to 11 percent). The ratio of college graduates to high school dropouts among whites is more than 3 (there are three times more college graduates than dropouts), while the ratio among blacks is 1 (there are as many college graduates as there are high school dropouts). A third of whites (32 percent) are employed in low-wage jobs at the bottom of the occupational structure, compared with 40 percent of blacks. A quarter (26 percent) of black young adults are below the poverty line, compared with 11 percent of whites. And nearly half (49 percent) of blacks eighteen to thirty-four lack private health insurance, compared with 27 percent of whites.
In sharp contrast is the profile that emerges of foreign-parentage Latin American and Asian young adults. Many Asian young men and women enter at the top of the educational hierarchy from the get-go: in the 1.0 generation, an extraordinary 88 percent of the Indians had bachelor's or advanced degrees (more than 50 points above the proportion of native whites), while only 2 percent failed to complete high school (their ratio of college graduates to dropouts is an astronomical 44). Also in the 1.0 generation, two-thirds of the Chinese and Koreans are college graduates, as are more than half of the Filipinos, and 27 percent of the Vietnamese (who entered mainly as refugees), while their proportions with less than a high school diploma are in the single digits (the sole exception are the 1.0 Vietnamese, at 18 percent). By the second generation, those high levels of educational attainment remain very high (all well above the level of native whites), or, as in the case of the Chinese and Vietnamese, increase significantly (to 79 percent and 51 percent, respectively), while their high school dropout rates remain in single digits, well below that of native whites.
Latino young adults enter at the bottom of the educational hierarchy, although wide differences exist between ethnic groups. In the 1.0 generation, only 5 percent or fewer of the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans had college degrees, while over 60 percent had not finished high school. However, significant progress takes place from the first to the second generation, with college graduation rates increasing to 15 percent for Mexican Americans and 32 percent for Salvadorans and Guatemalans, and high school dropout rates decreasing to between 20 and 25 percent (still higher than that of African Americans). The Puerto Rican profile largely stays flat: from the 1.0 to the 1.5 to the second generation the rate stays about the same, with the dropout rate (around one in four) nearly double the proportion that earns college degrees (around one in eight). For the Dominicans the share of college graduates increases from the 1.0 (12 percent) to the second generation (27 percent), but their dropout rates remain very high (around one in four). The Cubans show significant progress in college graduation levels (tripling from 16 percent in the 1.0 cohort to 48 percent in the second generation) and moderate declines in high school dropouts (from 17 to 11 percent, matching the rate for whites).
In the 1.0 generation, the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans (the groups with the largest proportion of undocumented immigrants—an issue to which we will return) also enter at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy, with more than three out of four mired in the lowest rungs of the U.S. labor market, and a nearly identical proportion lacking health insurance. About half of 1.0-generation Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Vietnamese also work in low-wage jobs. Their poverty rates are correspondingly high, and more than half of all of them lack private health insurance. However, most noticeably for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans (who, in the second generation, are U.S. citizens by birthright), again intergenerational progress is rapid, as table 2 indicates.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, reflecting the patterns of educational attainment already noted, the economic situation of the various Asian young adult ethnic groups is significantly better, as measured by the indicators listed in table 2. Groups that start out economically advantaged in the 1.0 generation (for example, the single-digit poverty rates seen among the Filipinos and Indians) maintain that advantage; others show intergenerational progress into the second generation (for example, decreasing poverty rates among the Chinese and decreasing low-wage employment among the Vietnamese). Poverty rates and lack of health care coverage for the Vietnamese and Koreans remain above those of native whites, but below the levels of African American young adults. Although the process of intergenerational change is only hinted at with these data, the formation of new patterns of urban ethnic inequality in early adulthood seems evident. And as we will elaborate, that inequality is widened further still by the fact that millions of young immigrants lack legal permanent residency status, blocking their prospects for social mobility.