Record Number in Poverty Hits African Americans Hard

September 16, 2010 | The Grio |  Link to article

I am not one for clichés, but they say when America sneezes, the African-American community gets a cold. This hackneyed expression is born out in U.S. Census Bureau poverty data released today. As anticipated, the data show the largest number of people living in poverty since the Census began keeping track 51 years ago, and the highest rate since 1994. A record 43.6 million people in this nation live in poverty, and of that 9.9 million are African-American. Between 2008 and 2009, African-Americans experienced a 1.1 percent rise in the number of individuals living in poverty, with 26 percent of African-Americans now under the federal poverty line.

It is far too expedient to declare this unprecedented number in poverty as merely a result of dismal economic conditions. The fact is, far too many met the federal definition of poverty before the economic recession, and millions more were one misfortune away from poverty. The persistence of poverty and extreme poverty has been most deeply experienced in the African-American community. For the last two years, many have declared our nation to be a post-racial society where equal opportunity abounds. But the numbers tell a different story.

The disproportionate percent of African-Americans living in poverty in America is not a new phenomenon. It's been an issue that civil rights advocates and others have long tried to remedy. Living in impoverished communities and families is stressful and costly in the short-term, and produces negative outcomes in the long-term. Poor children and youth are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to been teen parents, and less likely to be employed as young adults.

But more than three-fourths of African-American children spend at least part of their childhood in poverty, and 37 percent of them are persistently poor.

What I find most telling, however, is that for black children, being poor in childhood is a significant predictor of poverty in early adulthood. This phenomenon is not the same for white children. A recent Urban Institute study that examined longitudinal data from 1968 to 2005 found that only six percent of white children who were poor at birth were living in poverty as young adults, compared to 41 percent of African-Americans.

This is driven, in part, by the fact that black young adults who were born in poverty are less likely to be employed than whites who grew up in the same situation. This is particularly true for males. There is a 62 percentage point difference between rates of consistent employment between white and African-American males who grew up in poverty. Additionally, African-American males growing up in impoverished communities are far less likely than their peers to complete high school - oftentimes fewer than a third get a diploma.

The new data released by the US Census Bureau that enumerates this tremendous rise in numbers coupled with what we already know about harmful outcomes begs the question of why are we not doing a better job of meeting the needs of African-American children, youth, and their families who live in poverty. While all families struggle to find a pathway out of poverty, it is clear that African-Americans achieve the least success in this regard. The policies and approaches we've implemented to serve the poor, particularly in impoverished communities of color, have been woefully inadequate.

We need to be more intentional and more vocal about a particular focus on struggling African-Americans and distressed communities of color in America. The nation's policies and the implementation that happens in states and local communities cannot be void of a lens that looks specifically at desired outcomes for African-Americans.

There are many pieces of major legislation that are currently being considered for reauthorization that directly affect the lives of impoverished children and youth, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Workforce Investment Act, and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. In addition, there many pieces of new legislation that are being seriously considered by Congress and initiatives being enacted by the Obama administration. In total, these represent billions of dollars in precious resources.

To have these deliberations and enact these policies without a candid discussion and solid plan for the future of the nation's African-American children and youth is irresponsible and unwise, particularly in light of what we know about poverty and the communities that suffer the ill effects.

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