Income Inequality: Beyond Black History Month

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Shortly before Black History Month 2014 began, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama addressed an issue that has historically influenced the prosperity of the nation, and with disproportionate impact on that of its Black citizens: the growing income gap.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” Obama said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.

“Today, women make up about half our workforce,” Obama continued. “But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. … Now, women hold a majority of lower-wage jobs  – but they’re not the only ones stifled by stagnant wages. Americans understand that some people will earn more than others, and we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success. But Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.”

That income gap is one of the significant indicators of whether you are rich or poor, always an issue at hand in Alabama and in Birmingham. According to a 2008 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Alabama is one of the states in which the income gap between rich and poor has grown the most since 1980, and one of the states where the gap between rich and poor is the widest.

And many people who live in the state don’t  get that. “People have no idea that Alabama is the seventh poorest state in the nation. … They don’t have a good sense of where we are in context with the rest of the country,” said Kristina Scott, the executive director for Alabama Possible, an organization until recently known as the Alabama Poverty Project.

Because poverty is such a critical issue in Birmingham – according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28.9 percent of people in the city live below the poverty line – Weld is looking throughout 2014 at the factors that create poverty, how those factors affect citizens in the Magic City, and what the reality of poverty looks like in a community trying to forge a cultural renaissance.

Consider these statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, which appear on the websiteblackdemographics.com: “The poverty rate for all African Americans in 2012 was 28.1 percent, which is an increase from 25.5 percent in 2005. Actually, the poverty rate increased between 2005 and 2012 for every demographic of African Americans except those ages 65 and over, who experienced a decrease from 21.2 percent to 19 percent. Black families with children under 18 headed by a single mother have the highest rate of poverty at 47.5, compared to only 8.4 percent of married-couple black families.”

In an economy in crisis – even in one which is supposedly climbing out of crisis – certain elements have an obvious correlation to the racial income gap. The Economic Policy Institute, an organization focused on issues related to income inequality, noted in a story by Heidi Shierholz, that about a fifth of black American workers were unemployed at some point in 2013.

Closer to home, the numbers don’t look particularly better. The Census Bureau reports, for instance, that 45.3 percent of Black children in Alabama live below the poverty line. According to the Alabama Poverty Project, 30.6 percent of all blacks in Alabama are poor.

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2008-2012, an estimated 32 percent of the Black population in the city of Birmingham lived below the poverty line during the 12 months prior to their report. African-Americans in Birmingham also have a 17.6 percent unemployment rate, the 2010 Census indicates.

And in Jefferson County, census numbers show a similarly deep racial disparity. While the poverty rate for Whites is 8.9 percent, for Blacks the rate is 26.7 percent, and for Latinos of any race, the rate is 28.6 percent.

Nowhere has the income gap been more evident than in the African American community, where, from slavery until now, the wages of Blacks have forever lagged behind those of Whites in this country and this state. “The state’s long history of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination helps explain the extremely high rate of poverty among African Americans,” historian Wayne Flynt wrote in the Encyclopedia of Alabama article discussing poverty in Alabama.

In Alabama, the reasons for poverty are rooted in social, economic and political considerations of long historical standing, Flynt noted. “During the 20th century, low taxes and the widespread middle-class mythology about the nature of poverty — that most poor people were African Americans, or lazy, shiftless ‘poor white trash’ who refused to work — produced numerous negative consequences. The state’s educational system remained in shambles, especially for blacks and rural whites, family welfare payments were the nation’s second lowest, and the state income tax by the end of the twentieth century was the nation’s most regressive, taking affect when a poor person earned only $4,600 a year.”

The poverty experienced by Black families and others in the Birmingham area today “is not poverty that was brought on by the recession,” Kristina Scott of Alabama Possible said. “This is multigenerational poverty that’s caused by systems that are bigger than any one person. And poverty is difficult to solve because it is so complex. Because it is our relationships to public structures, to governments, it’s education it’s the economy and access to [living] wage-paying jobs. It’s access to health care. And it’s not just access, it’s also our ability to utilize those resources. So it makes it very difficult to solve.”

Alabama Possible, which began 20 years ago to attack poverty through faith-communities and higher education, is one of several organizations in the state which believes the iron grip of poverty can be broken – if the people have the will.

“We have seen that the history of the War on Poverty is that when there was a national call to cut poverty…the poverty rate was cut in half,” Scott said, specifically noting that from 1964 – when President Lyndon Johnson first declared the War on Poverty – to 1973, the poverty rate in the U.S. was reduced by 42 percent.

“That’s in a decade of sustained effort to cut poverty,” Scott said. “So when we have a focus on that, and we devote public and private resources to it, we [can affect] the poverty rate. But it does take a community-wide effort.

“So what gives me a lot of hope is the attention being put on the Birmingham City Schools and having so many new board members and the work of the Birmingham Education Foundation and the investments that Birmingham businesses are making into the school system,” she said. “These are all good signs for the future of the city of Birmingham. But that work needs to be sustained. The easy work is starting the conversations, but the hard work is continuing them.”

Ultimately, she believes that the problems of poverty afflicting people of all races in Birmingham won’t be solved without the concerted effort of people across demographic lines.

“This is about public and private solutions,” Scott said. “It is about churches and businesses and education systems and community groups and state and local government coming together and each group doing what they do best. We’ve got to start somewhere. This isn’t something that I think we should wait on. I think there is an urgency for everyone to say, ‘What can I do to make my life, my neighbor’s life better?’”

This piece originally ran in Weld for Birmingham, a weekly source for news and entertainment in Birmingham

Special to the NNPA from New America Media

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