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What Does It Feel Like To Be Middle Class? That Depends On Your Race, Researchers Say

A new report out Wednesday from the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests that race plays a big part in how it feels to be middle class, and challenges the idea that the middle class is a monolithic group.

Researchers from UIC’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy did in-depth interviews with 99 middle-class Cook County families from different racial backgrounds.

“Middle-class experiences are not the same,” said Amanda Lewis, a study author and professor of black studies and sociology and co-author of “Chicago’s Racial Wealth Gap: Legacies of the Past, Challenges in the Present, Uncertain Futures.”. She said the interviewees tended to have professional jobs and similar incomes and educational backgrounds, “and you’d think that they’re having somewhat similar experiences, but they’re really not.”

White families in the study tended to be far better off economically, with higher average incomes, higher home ownership rates and less debt. Black and Latino families were more likely to be “treading water” or on vulnerable economic footing.

Lewis said a big reason for that is intergenerational wealth. While white interviewees often had parents or grandparents who helped pay for college or a first home, Black and Latino families were the ones giving family assistance, not receiving it.

“Wealth begets wealth,” said Lewis. “So over time, these white families are accumulating more resources as other families are really just trying to get by.”

The report is peppered with excerpts from the researchers’ extensive interviews. They talked to “Regan,” for instance, who is described as a white, financially stable social worker in her 30s whose grandparents started a college fund for her when she was a toddler.

“[My grandparents] paid the tuition, my parents gave me money for rent, food, I did not work at all in college. Yeah, they must have sent me like, I must have had like an allowance or something, I can’t really remember, but I’m guessing that’s how it was. I had everything I needed.

Meanwhile, more than 50% of Black subjects interviewed and 70% of Latino subjects in the study received no substantial monetary support for college, from family or scholarships; they often started their career and adult life in debt, or had to work while in school.

“Bette,” a black government employee in her early 40s, described how the death of her father destabilized her economically.

“I had to use a big chunk of my savings to pay for his funeral … plus I had to pay some other stuff that he had out. It was just a mess.” As she described, “My dad is from Memphis, so his siblings wanted to come up here, and they’re older, so I had to connect with my cousins out there so they could get my family here. So they had to rent cars, so it was just a lot of money. I just kept dishing out, dishing out, dishing out.”

That stood in stark contrast to the financial impact of relatives’ deaths that white respondents described; many recounted receiving inheritances.

“The middle class families we spoke to have many things in common, similar educational credentials, similar careers, similar aspirations for their children,” the report concludes. “[B]ut when it came time to begin their lives as adults, they were often placed on different life trajectories, some burdened with large amounts of debt, others receiving regular infusions of transformative assets.”

That fact influences where people choose to live, whether or when they can purchase a home, what kinds of opportunities they can provide their children, and how well they are able to plan for their future, the study authors wrote. It also impacts their health and sense of well-being.

The study shows how “even seemingly ‘successful’ families” are still living out the consequences of historically racist laws and policies — think redlining, contract buying — that helped white families accumulate wealth while hindering Black and Latino families from doing so, the authors wrote.

A slow erosion of the public social safety net has impacted white families less, as they, essentially, have their own private safety net, according to the study.

The report offers several policy suggestions. including reparations, strict enforcement of fair housing and fair lending laws and robust public support of state colleges.

Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.

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