The excellent researchers at the Pew Research Center have looked at recent Census Bureau data and found that although Asian, White and Hispanic (who may be of any race) child poverty percentages have declined in the last few years, the Black child poverty rate has actually increased both since 2010 and, indeed, from 2000. It is now just under 40 percent, which is approximately what it was 30 years ago. According to Eileen Patten and Jens Manuel Krogstad: “Black children were almost four times as likely as white or Asian children to be living in poverty in 2013, and significantly more likely than Hispanic children.”
Patten and Krogstad leave it there, but these data cry out for answers to the following questions: Why do so many Black children continue to disproportionately live in poverty? And what are the implications of this continuing tragedy?
Obviously, Black children live in poverty because their parents are poor. Black median household incomes are less than two-thirds the White average and while the poverty rate for all White families is 9 percent, it is 24 percent for Black families. And why is that? Part of the reason is that the unemployment rate for Black Americans is twice that for Whites. Part of the reason is differences in educational attainment. Nearly one-third more Black adults over 25 years of age than White are without high school diplomas, while those proportions are reversed for college graduates and nearly twice the percentage of White Americans than Black have graduate degrees. A Black man is much more likely to be without a high school diploma than to have a graduate degree; again, the reverse of the situation for White men. And Black pay rates for every type of job and at every level of educational attainment are lower than the wages of their White co-workers.
Three times the percentage of Black households as White (30 percent versus 10 percent) are those of female householders, no husband present, with children under 18 years. With only one possible wage-earner in the household, nearly half of the children in these households live in poverty. Not that being a single parent household naturally leads to either poverty or educational underachievement. As Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich noted earlier this year in an analysis of data from the PISA tests of international student success, achievement gaps between married households and single-parent homes declined by 60 percent (from 27 points to 10 points) when adjusted for educational attainment and number of books in a home.
Black children live in poverty because their families are poor. Their families are poor because their parents have lower educational attainment than the adults in White families, are more likely to be unemployed, and if employed are paid less than White workers of equal educational attainment. Some factors in the relatively higher unemployment rate of Black workers include segregated housing remote from workplaces in areas, such as Milwaukee, with limited public transportation, and the tendency of employers to hire White applicants over equally qualified Black applicants on the basis of race alone.
Then there are those absent fathers. More than one-third of those absent fathers are easy to find. President Obama pointed out the other day in a speech to the NAACP that one in nine Black children now have a parent in prison. The incarceration rate for Black men is six times that of White men (and more than twice that of Hispanic men). This is vastly out of proportion to crime rates and is largely attributable, as the President has said, to the inequities of the criminal justice system: Police are more likely to stop Black men than White men in similar circumstances and more likely to ticket or arrest them.
Prosecutors (overwhelmingly White men) are more likely to prosecute Black Americans than White Americans for similar crimes and judges give Black men more severe sentences than they give White men for similar crimes. These inequities in the criminal justice system directly affect child poverty rates. When in prison Black men cannot contribute to family budgets and it is unlikely that ex-prisoners can earn enough to lift their children out of poverty with child support payments or other contributions to their household.
To complete this cycle, Black children living in poverty often live in highly segregated neighborhoods with poorly resourced schools. In many cities half or more male Black students do not receive a high school diploma and those that do are relatively unlikely to be well-prepared for college or careers. They are, however, highly qualified to be targeted by police for standing, walking or driving while Black. As a result, their children, as well, will be quite likely to live in poverty.
The situation has not changed over the past 30 years. So how could it change in the next 30? The answer starts with reforming education in order to achieve economic and social justice.
Schools with a predominately Black enrollment should be fully resourced, beginning with universal pre-kindergarten at age 3, with extended k-12 school days, weeks and years, high effective teachers and challenging curricula. College tuition should be free for all Black children whose family income is below the national median. Hiring and pay practices should be monitored for racial (and gender) inequities and where those are found remedial actions should be enforced. Black home ownership in non-segregated communities should be facilitated with federally guaranteed, low-interest mortgages. The criminal justice system should be radically reformed, perhaps in many places brought under federal supervision. School reformers should work together with criminal justice reform advocates and others to undertake these much-needed measures.
These initiatives could be supported by humane, rational legislation at all levels of government, or, if such a thing is impossible, by reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, calculated on the basis of the current disparities in income and wealth between the families of Black and White children, paid by those currently existing corporations and other entities that profited by slavery, Jim Crow and today’s disparities. We won’t count on the last solution. But the rest can be easily done if we have to political will to make them reality.