Income inequality and racial gaps in test scores Chapter uri icon


  • Income inequality among American families has grown steadily since the 1980s, as has the racial-ethnic income gap (Lichter and Eggebeen 1993). These trends are documented in table 3.1, which shows that the standard deviation of U.S. family income doubled from the 1980 to 2000 decennial censuses, and that the gaps between racial-ethnic groups also rose during this period. For example, the family income gap between blacks and whites rose by more than 50 percent over these two decades, and that between Latinos and whites almost doubled. Simultaneously, urban economic segregation grew, with particularly dramatic growth among African Americans and Latinos; the poor and the rich became increasingly isolated geographically (Jargowsky 1996). Could this growth in income inequality, together with social factors related to the development, contribute to our understanding of trends in the black-white test score gap, and in particular the failure of this gap to narrow during the late 1980s and 1990s? In this chapter, we focus on the potential impact of changes in the level and distribution of family income and the larger context within which adolescents and young adults learn. Family income is a powerful predictor of educational attainment, especially college attendance (Belley and Lochner 2007; Campbell et al. 2005). Although estimates of the impact of family income on test scores vary depending on the dataset used and the standardized test score analyzed, the results consistently show a small but statistically significant effect (see, for example, Phillips et al. 1998; Brooks-Gunn, Klebanov, and Duncan 1996). This literature implies that changes in income inequality between black and white families may also explain trends in the racial gap in test scores (Phillips et al. 1998). We build on this insight and study the relationship between the growth in the income advantage of white children relative to black and Latino children and recent trends in the test score gap. Could this factor suggest why the gap has failed to narrow in recent years?. Copyright © 2008 by Russell Sage Foundation.

author list (cited authors)

  • Campbell, M. E., Haveman, R., Wildhagen, T., & Wolfe, B. L.

Book Title

  • Steady Gains and Stalled Progress: Inequality and The Black-White Test Score Gap

publication date

  • December 2008