Why Whites Are More Pessimistic About Their Future Than Minorities


Christine Angeleri's great-grandfather, Salvatore Angeleri, emigrated in the 1920s from Italy to Detroit, where he set up a wholesale produce business. The working class in his newly adopted country was white and poorly educated. It stayed that way for generations, as Angeleri's son took over the family business and his grandson, David Angeleri, passed on a produce career for a more secure position working dispatch for the Detroit Fire Department. There was no lake cottage for David's daughter Christine to grow up visiting.

Christine married Dave Miller, a blond,  baby-faced, second-generation firefighter who ran a construction business on the side. Together for 11 years, they work three jobs and finally bought the ultimate middle-class trophy: Butter-yellow with white trim, the Millers' cottage is crammed on a narrow lot between a dirt road and Lake Erie. A jet ski rests behind it on a metal boat lift in hip-deep, choppy water. Far across the green-blue lake, Cleveland looms faintly on the horizon.

A year or so ago, Dave and some friends tore off the cottage's roof and added a second floor, doubling its size to 1,400 square feet, consuming several cases of beer in the process. "Dave lives to come here," Christine Miller says, lounging in a lawn chair overlooking the beach. "This is his American Dream."

Yesterday, Christine had called Dave on her way up to the cottage. He told her he hoped to join her that night. But he had a home-repair job to finish--the housing bust all but eradicated new-home construction in Detroit, so Dave handles less-lucrative repair and remodels now--and he was already sounding pessimistic that he'd make it on time, if at all.

Waiting for Dave, Christine and her sister-in-law sit with their feet atop the break wall, watching from the front yard of the cottage as their children play in the waves. "You've got to hope it will get better for your kids," Christine says. "If not, what do you have?" The children will need more education that she got, but college tuition is getting out of reach. "It's a vicious cycle."

Those attitudes typify the working-class white perspective across the country. A recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll found that whites without college degrees are just as likely to believe they have fewer opportunities than their parents did as they are to believe they have more. Only a quarter of whites believe that their children will have more chances to get ahead than they do.

Dave Miller wrestles with pessimism, too. "I'm going to work my ass off to see [my children] have better opportunities than us," he says over breakfast at a Detroit-area diner. He just finished a 24-hour shift at the station and needs to wrap up that home repair. The cottage will have to wait.


For blacks in South Carolina, the road into the working class ran from fields to cities and factories. Tierra Stewart's grandmother, Betty Stewart, picked cotton in Union County when soybeans, peach trees, and apple orchards also dotted the landscape there. Agriculture eventually yielded to the booming textile industry, and then to factories where Tierra's aunts and uncle worked eight-hour shifts baking frozen dinners and building luxury cars.

Nationally, about two-thirds of blacks believe they enjoy greater economic opportunity than their parents did at the same age, double the percentage for whites, according to the Heartland Monitor poll. Only one in eight say they have less opportunity. Nearly three in five believe that their children will find even more chances to get ahead than they have.

It's easy to see why Tierra believes she'll do better than her parents. Her mother shuttled between jobs, working for an Adidas plant or for the payroll department of a health care company. Tierra never remembers her father holding down steady work apart from the occasional construction job. Later, he landed in jail for fatally shooting his girlfriend in a domestic dispute.

Tierra's best economic role model today is her Aunt Cynthia, her closest relative to go to college. Cynthia and her husband of 23 years live in a planned community with a well-manicured lawn and a spotlessly clean truck in the driveway. Cynthia is a social worker who deals with troubled youth. She offered her car when Tierra's broke down, and she often bails her niece out when something goes wrong. Like Cynthia, most of Tierra's aunts and uncles own their homes. They buy new cars. Occasionally, they take vacations (a few of them recently returned from a wedding in Las Vegas). They've worked for the same factories or companies for 10, 13, 17, or 30 years, jobs with health insurance.

The family members in Tierra's generation enjoy less security, but they dream bigger. Tierra has round cheeks and a wide smile, and she looks young enough to be in high school. Her voice is quiet and low. At work, she wears gold hoop earrings and pulls her hair into a tiny bun; at home, she prefers jeans and fitted T-shirts, a sharp contrast to how she dresses Quay--in colorful, brand-name polo shirts, ironed shorts, and white socks.

After high school, Tierra made $8.90 per hour at the Wal-Mart bakery. But then she earned a certificate as a nursing assistant from Spartanburg Community College in May 2009 and quickly found work in the booming medical field. Now she works at homes for senior citizens and disabled people, making $10.55. "Grandma Betty was picking cotton in the fields when she was my age," she says. "My life is better."

Tierra and her 24-year-old brother, Antwan Booker, both harbor dreams of returning to college, securing middle-class--even corporate--jobs, and leaving South Carolina, if not for work then at least for vacation. Tierra wants to become a hospital nurse, a job that she's heard pays as much as $28 per hour. After three years of job searching, Antwan now makes $17 an hour at a paper plant, but he hopes, someday, to land an accounting position at a big bank in Charlotte, N.C., where he might earn enough to buy season tickets for the Panthers or the Bobcats.

Their aspirations embody the relentless optimism of black Americans. Typically, the younger you are, the more hopeful you are about the future. A Pew Mobility Project analysis this spring found that, holding all other factors constant, being black was "equivalent to knocking 20 years off one's age in terms of hopefulness."

Tierra and Quay keep their dreams in a one-story pale-blue cottage in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood across from a church. They moved in this June. It's the first house Tierra has ever rented on her own.

In financial terms, it's a house of cards.

Ambar Gonzalez took her first steps in the brick house with the brightly striped awnings and the cookout-size back yard. It's just down the street from the big Catholic cathedral in a neighborhood built by Germans, who gave way to Italians and Poles, and eventually Mexicans.

Ambar's mother, Marcia Soto Rochel, moved to this neighborhood, Pilsen, as a young bride from the Mexican state of Durango. As a child, she lived in a village so small that one store sold everything. She and her siblings studied at a boarding school in a larger town nearby. It was a simple life but a comfortable one, Marcia says, and she did not want to leave it, even when she agreed to marry a young Mexican-American who intended to take her back to Chicago.

She cried when she walked down the aisle on her wedding day. Thinking that she grieved for her recently deceased mother, the congregation cried with her. Marcia was grieving, yes--for her independence. Her fears foreshadowed how quickly the marriage would end: A few years later, she left her husband.

Marcia lived for a hot Chicago summer in the bed of a canopy-covered pickup truck, with her two toddler sons and the much-younger sister she was raising in her mother's absence. She waited tables and enrolled in beauty school. She drove south to leave the children with a relative, then north to work, then south to pick them up afterward. She learned to cut and style hair. She opened her own shop. She saved money scrupulously, remarried, bore a daughter, and moved into the house on South Hoyne Avenue just before Ambar's first birthday.

Ambar has the height and cheekbones of a beauty-pageant winner, which she is. She giggles in small bursts and speaks in a low melody that slides seamlessly between English and Spanish. She grew up surrounded by drugs and violence, but Marcia wanted her daughter to escape all that. When Ambar was in fifth grade, she often forgot to bring her homework from school--so Marcia made her carry the entire contents of her desk back and forth every day.

Mother sent daughter to a private school in the suburbs, a bus and a train and another bus ride away. "She was always there, pushing me, telling me I could do whatever I wanted," Ambar says over breakfast at Nuevo Léon Restaurant, a Pilsen eatery famous for its flour tortillas. "She always told me that I had to go to college, but I could be whatever I wanted to be."

That optimism girds Latinos in America. Nearly three in five surveyed by the Heartland Monitor poll said they believe that their children will have more opportunity to get ahead than they did. A similar number said they have more opportunity today than their parents did at the same age.

Ambar seized the opportunities her mother created for her. She earned a political science degree from DePaul University in 2009 and decided to become a lawyer. She prepped for the LSAT exam and worked at a nonprofit agency helping immigrants. She lived with her mom in the three-bedroom house that had become a hub for extended family members rolling in and out of Chicago.

Almost every weekend, everyone in the family barbecued together in the backyard on South Hoyne. Marcia's salon was just around the corner, and in 2008, she took out a second mortgage on the house to remodel both buildings. She turned the basement into an apartment of sorts, complete with a kitchen, for guests. In the shop, she laid gleaming new wood floors and painted the walls bright colors, in hopes of attracting back the customers who suddenly weren't coming around nearly as often.

Presented by

Jim Tankersley, Ron Fournier and Nancy Cook

Jim Tankersley is the economic correspondent for National Journal. Ron Fournier is the magazine's editor, and Nancy Cook is the budget and tax correspondent.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Business

Just In