Social mobility part 2

Embrie and Lashandra Roberts saw their family income slashed by nearly a third last year, but they still think they’re better off than their parents were.

“We don’t have to stop and wait till we have the money if the kids need a new pair of shoes or something,” Lashandra says. “My parents couldn’t just go out and buy things whenever we needed them.”

Still, the Roberts want more for their daughter, Emari, 10.

“We hope she will have more opportunities than we did,” Lashandra says. “We teach her that nothing beats hard work when it comes to getting ahead. But hard work isn’t always enough.”

They know Emari’s chances at building a better lifestyle than their own are far from a sure bet.

With a family income of about $45,000 (down from $68,000), the Roberts are clinging to their status among an endangered species known as the American middle class.

The decay of the middle class is the fallout from a trifecta of troubling social trends that water down the odds on Emari doing as well in life as her parents.

Kids who manage to get a college degree start life bearing a yoke of college debt far heavier than graduates in past decades. They’re not faring well in the job market, either. Those who do find work earn far less than their peers did two decades ago, according to research from the Pew Research Center. They’re living with their parents longer and getting married later-two thresholds to adulthood historically linked to making money and building wealth.

Missing rungs

Emari, a fifth-grader at Polaris Charter Academy, dreams of growing up to be a lawyer or a nanny. Either way, she will need to take some giant steps to outpace her parents’ standard of living.

In fact, a report by Pew Charitable Trusts, Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up from the American Dream, predicts as many as a quarter of children who grew up in middle class families will drop to lower rungs as adults.

The problems today’s young people are having getting a foothold in life are rooted in polarizing income. As manufacturing and other middle-class jobs have dwindled, much of the middle class has slid downward on the income ladder.

At the same time, the well-to-do are pulling in a “bigger portion of the income pie,” says Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist.

Fewer young people-just 54 percent-have jobs now than at any time since the government began keeping track in 1948. It’s one more sign the recession is crushing job prospects for classrooms of kids in high school or college when the financial free fall ensued.

“They had the misfortune to be born at a time that would dump them into this labor market as young people,” Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says in the Pew report. “If we stay on the track that we’re on, this (group) is not going to outpace their parents.”

Nationwide, the cities where the middle class’ share of income dropped outnumbered those where it grew by more than 2-to-1, according to a USA Today analysis of Census data. In the Chicago metro areas, the share of income collected by the middle class shrank from 46.9 in 2006 to 46.6 in 2010, a drop economists say is statistically significant, though on paper it doesn’t look that bad.

Two sides of the tracks

It’s not just paychecks that are pushing the rich and poor farther and farther apart, Reardon and other socioeconomic experts say. The social mobility quagmire literally is hitting us where we live.

In the past, Americans have flocked together in zones based on race. But a new kind of segregation is gripping cities as the well-to-do cluster in shiny new commuter areas and gentrified older neighborhoods-places that are becoming too pricey for lower- and middle-income families.

The recession pushed the haves and have-nots ever further apart, says Timothy Smeeding, a sociologist who studies income disparities at the University of Wisconsin. The stock markets, major sources of earnings for the wealthy, have recovered more quickly than the price of homes, which represent the bulk of assets for middle- and lower-income families.

What’s left on the wrong side of the tracks is a black hole in policies and investments in social supports-like schools, parks and public transportation systems. All of this paints a particularly dim future for young workers, economists say. Those who graduate in recessions have lower incomes in the long term, according to Lisa Kahn of Yale University.

“These shifts have far-reaching implications for the next generation,” Reardon says. “Children in poor neighborhoods tend to have less access to high-quality schools, child care and preschool, as well as to support networks or educated and economically stable neighbors who might serve as role models.”

Tough choices

The Roberts inhabit the upper floor of a house owned by their parents in West Humboldt Park, a working class immigrant neighborhood that over the past 50 years has become known less for its bustling business district and more for high crime and gang activity.

Lashandra, a teaching assistant at Polaris Charter Academy, saw her salary shrink over the past five years. Embrie suffered the same pay cut when he replaced the position he lost with the school district with a job as a security guard.

The Roberts had to say no to baseball and basketball leagues Emari wanted to join, signing her up for free dancing and debate courses with YMCA Education Initiatives instead. They also had to pass on tutoring at Sylvan Learning Center, opting for free after-school homework help from the YMCA.

“We want her to have the best opportunities, but we have to make tough choices when it comes to how we spend our resources,” Embrie says.

It’s not that the Roberts don’t appreciate the importance of education when it comes to getting ahead. It’s more that, at 36 and 46, Emari’s mom and dad are still struggling to bring their own schooling up to speed. Lashandra hopes to find the time and money to earn her teaching certificate. Embrie still is making payments on the money he borrowed for a degree in computer science, which he had to abandon in favor of picking up extra shifts at work.

“It’s rough when you’ve got Fannie May in your pocket every month. I’m still paying for the education I never got,” Embrie says. “We wanted to get re-trained in more marketable skills, but it’s just hard to get there from here.”

And for Emari?

“We hope she does better than us, but we know it won’t be easy,” her mom says.

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