Race Still Plays a Role in Defining Poverty

Jan 18, 2013

By Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant

Recently, I was on Huff Post Live (a live-streaming program on Huffington Post) with an interesting panel of people discussing whether class defines segregation and poverty in our nation and whether race has lost its relevance. This discussion was based on a blog by Janita Poe on AI.com which asserts that class, not race, is what separates society today.

If race were no longer a factor, then the experiences of the poor would not vary along racial lines. In fact, black and white families experience poverty very differently.

Black families in poverty are far more likely to live in segregated communities of concentrated poverty while white families in poverty are more likely to live in suburban areas of mixed income. This is not simply by choice. Discrimination in housing is still alive and well, albeit less overt than the historical days of redlining. This difference in geography has long term effects for black families on outcomes including health, education, employment, and family formation outcomes. Families have less access to quality health services, jobs that provide a livable wage, education that prepares youth for college and careers, community programming, and healthy food options. The difference of location makes a difference in future life outcomes.

Black children are more likely to live in persistent poverty, whereas white children are more likely to cycle in and out of poverty as parents' income fluctuates.   This is largely a function of access to employment. Black unemployment rates are consistently about double that of whites, with the widest gaps being for low income people. Living in poverty for more than one-half of childhood has a significant impact on how young people view the world and their prospective future within it. The ability to envision a better life is a critical step to actually achieving it.

When we shift the conversation to middle-class black families, we see that the racial inequities remain. Gaps in education access and attainment, employment, health, and family formation persist across all socioeconomic levels. In some of our nation's most diverse suburban school districts, high schools with high minority populations fail to offer the full menu of courses that prepare students for college admission. While the racial gaps in unemployment decrease as level of education increases, the gaps do not go away. Race is still a factor in employment, regardless to whether you are a high school dropout or hold a PhD.

There is no mistaking that race remains a major divider in our nation. For me, the most compelling sentiment of this 30-minute dialogue was the one expressed by Carey Fuller, the only person in poverty on our segment:  she said that as a nation, we could fix this if we wanted to. 

site by Trilogy Interactive