Tuesday, September 29, 2015

African American Income and Poverty in Minnesota – “No change” should motivate us

“Black household income dipped severely; black poverty has increased. So, we need to take action.” News articles since the release of the most recent findings from the Census Bureau have expressed this theme in one way or another. Advocacy groups have vocalized it and have demanded action in response.

But did the trends in black income and black poverty really take an alarmingly sudden and significant wrong turn? Should a one-year change in black household income and black poverty trends cause us to take action? If so, what would we do?

Wilder Research staff member, Allison Liuzzi, explained to Minnesota Public Radio that the black poverty rate moved from about 33% to 38% from 2013 to 2014 in Minnesota, representing 20,000 more people reported in poverty in just one year. However, Allison and her fellow Minnesota Compass staff members have emphasized that in the previous year the poverty rate among blacks had declined by 5 percentage points. The recent change brought the rate back to its high mark for most of the past 10 years. That’s the news that she and others want us to understand.

Blips in the statistical trend lines, whether up or down, should not divert our attention from the real story, namely, that one in three black Minnesotans lives in poverty. Even though some numbers shifted back and forth, really “no change” has occurred, and that should disturb us. We must acknowledge the stark and serious fact that the economic status of the black residents of our communities remains dismally low.

So, what do we do? Implore the Governor to mobilize state policymakers and staff? Perhaps, but also recognize that no Governor or Government has succeeded at producing more than incremental change on these issues, and typically only slowly. Disrupt public transportation and public events? That activity achieves headlines and might work in certain situations. But, in my opinion, unless such demonstrators acquire the skills of the civil rights and peace activists of the days of Martin Luther King, such action runs the risk of being counterproductive, and might even divide rather than connect us.

If I had the perfect answer, I would share it. Yet I am certain that the route to the answer requires change at the molecular level of our hearts and the structural level of our society and economy. A “strategic plan” to address economic disparities that have the potential to destroy us should include steps at both of these levels.

At the level of the heart, we need to acknowledge our common humanity. Reasonable people can understand that the features we share outweigh the features that differentiate us. Extreme bigots may deny that premise, but most of us can be brought to accept it. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamt of the day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” As a first strategic step, we need to hold hands, literally and figuratively, in order to address economic disparities and ultimately improve the economic status of all.

We need a combination of research analysis and genuine soul-searching to understand what lies at the roots of the disparities we see in our state and how we strike at those roots. Why do differences exist in the poverty rates of whites and blacks? Yes, racism plays a role; yes, disparities in education lead to disparities in acquisition of wealth; yes, social determinants of health influence educational achievement, disease and disability rates, with resulting decreased earnings for certain groups.

But at the same time that Minnesota enjoys a relatively high overall standard of living, analysis reveals that, relative to the other 49 states, we have some of the largest social and economic disparities among racial groups. Why? If we don’t answer that question, we might have the misfortune of spinning our wheels with unproductive solutions to our challenge. Our strategic plan will create a failing strategy.

In fashioning solutions, role clarification becomes extremely important. What can we expect government to do? What must individuals do? What must communities do for their members? Educational success for young people depends, for example, on the combined efforts of communities, families, and schools. The educational system alone cannot produce success. Yet too many proposals for improving the education of persons of color ignore the necessity of involving all three of these elements of our society.

And, at the level of our overall society and economy, job creation stands out as crucial. No amount of improvement in education, no change in attitudes among the majority population, and no legislation will produce an increase in the economic status of blacks if jobs do not exist for people to fill and earn a livelihood. Our strategy needs to include government and the private sector in roles which attract and retain black workers in adequately paying jobs.

Lower economic status for our black residents should precipitate a clamor for intervention. All of us have a role in that intervention. I’m confident that, with increased understanding, hope, and a genuine commitment, we can act to move the line on the graph unswervingly in a positive direction.