Why the New Poverty Numbers Should Be a Wake-Up Call

September 15, 2011 | The Grio |  Link to article

I'm tired of talking about poverty. I'm tired of talking about how black folks fare worse on every measure of well being. I'm tired of talking about how many are unemployed, how many don't go to college, how many are failing in school and how many children live in single-parent homes.

It seems every week another entity releases yet another report that quantifies the plight of black America. Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual poverty data. Not surprisingly, given the nation's economic condition and the lack of jobs, the report reveals poverty has increased. Overall, the poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent. Among blacks, 27.4 percent now live in poverty. Median household income fell by 2.3 percent to $49,445. For blacks, the drop was even more precipitous, falling from $33,122, to $32,068, a 3.2 percent decrease. This means that more families are trying to make ends meet with fewer and fewer resources.

The most difficult statistics for me to swallow are about young black Americans, the future of our community. According to the Census, there are 2.5 million black homes where the householder is under the age of 30, 63 percent of which (1.56 million) are heads of young black families.

Forty-five percent of these young black families earn less than $20,000 per year, which is just slightly below the federal poverty line for a family of four. A startling 76 percent are low income -- earning less than $45,000 per year to support themselves and their families.

Youth is supposed to be about promise and possibility -- a time for figuring out what you want to be, establishing a career path, and charting a course for your future. When I was in my early 20s, I saw the world as a stage before me, and I was confident I could play any part, sing any line. But far too many black youth don't have access to opportunities that enable them to have the outlook I had 15 years ago.

So we know the extent of the problem. Actually, we've known the extent of the problem for quite some time. But we are sorely lacking in adequate solutions. Failed schools are part of the reason that young blacks aren't equipped with the tools they need to start adulthood on equal footing. Yet Congress has failed to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to fix problem schools.

More than half of young black males fail to complete high school on time, thereby limiting their prospects for employment and significant income. Yet we are hard pressed to move Congress or the Obama administration to fund comprehensive dropout recovery initiatives. Employment rates for all Americans are troubling, and particularly dreadful for black young adults and those with limited education.

But the responses to this employment crisis so far have been tepid and have not made a dent in the jobs problem in communities of color. The president's jobs proposal, the American Jobs Act, does take bold and timely steps to address youth and young adult unemployment by building on what we know works. But the devil, they say, is in the details. So we have to hope that this bill will actually become law.

The increasing number of blacks falling into poverty and out of the middle class means we are not only failing to make progress, we are going backward.

If we want future generations to be better off, we must stop bemoaning the problems of black America in the media, in lengthy research documents, in barber shops, the church parking lot and around the kitchen table. We must be about solutions and press for real change.

The same energy and determination that abolished Jim Crow is the same energy that must be applied to putting pressure on Congress, the Obama administration, state and local leadership to create meaningful policy changes that have a direct, immediate benefit on the lives of black people in America.

Millions of all races are now struggling because they don't make adequate income to support themselves or their families. Increasing poverty indicates opportunities are fewer and farther between or simply do not exist. We need a more fair and just society that allows all people to thrive. But that will only happen if we organize, become a voice in the policy making process, and demand change.

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