Chapter II: Black Poverty
But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life … I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day … I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children … I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address.
These are exactly the conditions, 75 years after Roosevelt’s great speech, in which African-Americans live today: one-third in poverty. What is even more distressing is that nearly half of African-American children grow up in households with incomes below the poverty level. This is in part the effect of the historical rigidity of American income and wealth class boundaries. For example, in 1860 the wealthiest 1% of the residents of the nation’s largest cities held 45% of the wealth of those cities. For much of the nineteenth century all families below the second percentile possessed less than ten dollars in assets and “there were forces at work in the American economy during the nineteenth century that tended to produce greater inequality in the distribution of wealth over time. “ These “forces” included those giving rise to the great concentrations of wealth seized by the men who controlled the Trusts, chiefly, the ruthless exercise of monopoly and police power. It was only during “The Great Compression” of the mid-twentieth century that inequality declined and economic mobility increased. This temporary situation was reified as “the American Dream,” when that term was not limited to the aspiration of working people to own a house, a car, a refrigerator or their supposed longing for a wide choice of breakfast foods. Contrary to this Madison Avenue ideology, for much of the nation’s history the America of equal opportunity and upward mobility has rarely been anything more than a dream.
The Pew Charitable Trust’s 2012 report Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations documents what now appears to be the end of the Great Compression and with it the end of the tattered remnants of American exceptionalism. According to the report, there is now, once again, little inter-generational mobility in this country and what there is, is decreasing. The report finds that “Americans raised at the bottom and top of the family income ladder are likely to remain there as adults” and an astonishing two-thirds of those raised at the top and bottom of the wealth distribution also remain in those positions as adults. America is not supposed to have these rigid multi-generational class boundaries and it is this part of the report that received the most media attention.
Less—hardly any—media attention was paid to the part of the report concerned with the issue of race. The report’s authors found that “Over half of blacks (53 percent) raised in the bottom of the family income ladder remain stuck in the bottom as adults … Half of blacks (56 percent) raised in the middle of the family income ladder fall to the bottom …” As a result, more than half of Black families are at the bottom of the income ladder—half of those because they were born there, the rest because they fell down to there. The report shows that this situation is exacerbated by the fact that while 65% of Black families have incomes in the bottom fifth of the distribution, a full 83% of Black families are in the bottom two-fifths of the national income distribution. (On the other hand only 11% of White families have incomes in that bottom fifth of the distribution, and just 32% of White families can be found in the bottom two fifths.)
Few Black families can be classified as solidly middle class or higher. Only 2% of Black families make it into the highest fifth of the income scale, as compared to 23% of White families.
Analyzing income and wealth together, the Pew Charitable Trusts again found little mobility for Black Americans: “More than half of black adults (53 percent for family income and 50 percent for family wealth) raised at the bottom remain stuck there as adults, but only a third of whites (33 percent for both) do.” In a technical note, the report’s authors observe that there are too few Black families in the highest income and wealth quintiles to provide a basis for estimates. That is, in the income and wealth quintiles, which include nearly half of White families, the number of Black families is statistically insignificant. The bottom population quintile includes approximately equal numbers of Black and White Americans, while, as already observed, there are few Black Americans in the higher quintiles (7 million in the second, 3 million in the middle, 2.7 million in the fourth, 800,000 in the fifth).
Of the approximately 53 million people in the top 20% of the income distribution, at least 50 million are White and this disproportionality increases as we approach closer to the wealthiest 1% of Americans. High income Black families are “too few to report estimates.” In other words, we can safely assume, as we all in fact do, that if a family has a top income, it is White, not Black. The exceptions – a few names will come to mind – simply make the case more clearly evident. No one bothers to name the White families in the 1%. We can as readily assume that if a family is Black, it is most likely poor. Moreover, perhaps two-thirds of the poorest 20% of Americans are either Black or Hispanic, groups which represent less than half that proportion of the general population.
The picture is much the same if we look at wealth rather than income. According to the Pew report: “Only 23 percent of blacks raised in the middle exceed their parents’ wealth compared with 56 percent of whites. Only in the bottom quintile do a majority of blacks surpass their parents’ wealth, but a black-white gap of 8 percentage points still exists.” (There are virtually no African-Americans born into the top two wealth quintiles, which include more than half of White, non-Hispanics.)
The Pew report tells us that class lines in America are not only becoming more marked, as is now widely recognized, but that they are becoming more rigid, with what intergenerational mobility there is increasingly dependent on educational attainment. A further analysis of the data shows that America’s class divides are also increasingly race-based and that the correlation between family income and educational opportunity (or the lack thereof) is increasingly locking Black families in multi-generational poverty. An implicit message of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ report is that this system of what is in effect a race-based class — or caste — structure appears to becoming permanent in the United States.
One-third of Americans living in poverty are Black — more than twice their share in the general population. However, the percentage of people living in poverty who are Black varies enormously among the states, from 4% in Utah and Maine to 62% in Mississippi (and 83% in the District of Columbia). Some of this variation, of course, has to do with the Black percentage of the population in each state. The states where few of the poor are Black are the states where there are few African-Americans. The racial disproportionality of poverty is most acute in New Jersey and Illinois (the District of Columbia is obviously a special case), but after that come eight former Jim Crow states. States where the lowest percentage of those living in poverty are Black tend to be those with few Black residents or where the White (or in New Mexico, Hispanic) population is particularly impoverished, such as West Virginia and Kentucky.
Remarkably, there is very little correlation between Black and White poverty rates within states. The White poverty rate in Maine is only one point above the national average; the Black poverty rates in West Virginia and Kentucky are below the national average. Only in Maryland are the poverty rates for both Black and White Americans correspondingly low in respect to those in all other states.The states with the most White, non-Hispanic, people living in poverty are California, Florida, Ohio, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania. These are the six most populous states and they are evenly spread across the country’s regions. Those states with the most Black people living in poverty are Florida, Georgia, Texas, New York, North Carolina and Illinois: four Southern states and two northern states with large urban populations. More Black than White people in Georgia live in poverty, despite the fact that the state has twice as many White as Black residents. This is also true of Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Maryland. All these were slave states. All had Jim Crow laws. That heritage remains.
Sorting the states by the number of Black persons living in poverty, we find that there is a great concentration in the South and certain northern, formerly industrial states: New York, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, as well as California. The concentration of African-Americans living in poverty who are in the core former-slave-states is an artifact of the influence of history and the continuation of the heritage of the subordinate status of African-Americans in those states. It is notable that this subordinate status, manifesting as economic immobility, now extends to the nation as a whole.
Economic inequality in the United States, today as throughout its history, is racialized. To use the Disraelian cliché, we are truly two nations, one Black and poor, kept poor, the other White, showing an income distribution much like that of a developed country. Between these is a shifting immigrant population — first German and Irish, then eastern and southern European (especially Italian), now Hispanic (overwhelmingly Mexican) — which traditionally comes into American life level with or just above the Black population and then is gradually assimilated to the White group. The great immigration from Italy (especially Southern Italy and Sicily) in the early twentieth century was an immigration of farm workers with low literacy rates in any language. They settled in cities and factory towns, in or near Black neighborhoods. Today the median family income of Italian-Americans is $78,480, considerably above the median income for all American families ($61,455) and higher still than that of Black families ($40,140). It is highly probable that this will be the path followed by the more recent immigrations from Latin America. This comparative, occasional, income mobility of immigrants often conceals, is used to conceal, the economic immobility of African-Americans.
What are the ways in which Black poverty and Black intergenerational economic immobility are maintained? One is educational inequities, to which we will turn in the next chapter. Another is the mass incarceration discussed in the previous chapter, the economic implications of which we will now consider.
It is well-known (at least since the Moynihan Report) that family structures vary by race. In 2010 nearly 80% of White, non-Hispanic, households were traditional “Husband-wife” families. Thirty percent of those traditional White families included their “own children under 18 years.” Fourteen percent of White, non-Hispanic, households were those of unmarried women and 7% were “Female householder, no husband present” with “own children under 18 years.” Among Black households, less than half, 44%, were traditional “Husband-wife” families. Families of that type including their “own children under 18 years” were just 20% of all Black families. On the other hand, 46% (4.3 million), of all Black families were listed by the 2010 Census as “Female householder, no husband present” and 27% (2.5 million) were “Female householder, no husband present” with their “own children under 18 years.” In other words, nearly half of Black women are at the head of their own household — three times the White rate — and it is four times more likely that a Black child will live with his mother alone than live with both parents. Of those 2.4 million African-American families, “Female householder, no husband present” with their “own children under 18 years,” 1.3 million (54%) had incomes below the poverty level in 2010. (The number of such White, non-Hispanic, households is similar, 1.5 million female household families with children under 18 years and incomes below poverty, but the percentage is much lower: 33% of such families.)
It is approximately equally likely that a Hispanic or White, non-Hispanic, child living in poverty will be living with both parents or with a mother alone. For the 3.5 million Black children living in poverty, it is overwhelmingly more likely that they will be the children of a woman raising her children without a husband, or any of his income, to help. Those 1.3 million African-American households with children being raised by their mothers alone with incomes below the poverty line are a crucial group for public policy. Moving those families, or a substantial number of them, out of poverty will increase education achievement and decrease mass incarceration. Or, to look at it in another way, increasing educational achievement and decreasing mass incarceration would move a substantial number of those 1.3 million families out of poverty.