Have we made progress during the past 50 years? In advocating for the passage of civil rights legislation, President Kennedy asserted that a number of inequities existed in the United States:
The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the State in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.
Where do we stand today?
Drawing valid comparisons, for our nation as a whole, across the span of a half century presents challenges, but evidence definitely points to elements of progress related to most, but not all, of Kennedy’s concerns. We have not met Kennedy’s goals, but we have moved in a positive direction.
- A black young person today is 80% as likely as a white young person to complete high school – up 30 percentage points from the “half as much chance” cited by Kennedy.
- A black young person has about two-thirds of the likelihood of a white young person to complete college – so double the probability from Kennedy’s era.
- Regarding the “one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man” which Kennedy noted, contemporary statistics show about 30% of black workers classified as employed in “management, professional, and related occupations,” compared with 39% of white workers. That significantly boosts the likelihood from Kennedy’s “one-third as much chance” to a current “75% as much chance.”
- A 1965 income of $10,000 equates to about $75,000 today. Among black households, 20 percent have income above that mark, compared with 37% of white households. So, we see movement from Kennedy’s “one-seventh” to the current “one-half.”
- The lifespan gap has improved, from 7 years difference between blacks and whites to about 4.
- The unemployment rate for blacks remains about twice the rate for whites; so no change from when Kennedy did his assessment.
Moving forward, we must ask ourselves how we can reduce even more the social and economic differences which Kennedy identified. We know that some of these differences result from social and environmental conditions outside of the control of any single individual. So, no matter how well you eat and exercise, aspects of your surroundings partially influence how long you will live. However, individual choice also makes a difference; what you eat and drink, what lifestyle you lead – those things add and subtract years from your life.
We need to determine what we can meaningfully achieve through our formal government and community institutions and what we must encourage individuals to do on their own to improve their lives.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated (in one of his many quotes which I love): “In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Those words provide a rationale for action – that the inability of any one person in our society to achieve good health and prosperity detracts from the health and well-being of all. The words also bring us to recognize that progress on social issues requires changes in the habits, customs, systems, and activities of all of us, with the ultimate consequence of a better life for everyone.
(By the way, if you have additional interests regarding social disparities, consult Minnesota Compass.)