Poverty outlook grows grim — especially for Blacks

Repeated recessions take their toll

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the overall U.S. poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3 percent — but it’s nearly 26 percent for Blacks, up almost a percent from 2008. This translates to just under 10 million Blacks living in poverty in this country.

On the other hand, the poverty rate for Whites was 11 percent in 2008 and 12.3 percent in 2009. Of course, the number of Blacks living in poverty has always been much higher than Whites. At no time over a 50-year period has the percentage of Blacks living in poverty been less than 22 percent, according to Census Bureau data.

“The poverty numbers [for Blacks] in this country were quite high even before the Great Recession,” said Institute for Policy Studies Senior Organizer and Research Associate Dedrick Muhammad in an interview with the MSR. “It is important to note that even before the recession, African Americans were at almost a 25-percent poverty rate.”

President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 declared a “War on Poverty” in the U.S. As the new Census data suggests, has the country lost this almost 50-year war?

Admittedly, some can look at the War on Poverty as a failure, notes Muhammad, “but actually it helped bring down poverty rates.” For example, after Johnson’s declaration, the Black poverty rate decreased from 41.8 percent in 1966 to 30.3 percent in 1974.
However, the numbers went back up until 1995, when the Black poverty rate again began dropping from 29.3 percent in 1995 to a low of 22.5 percent in 2000.

Muhammad was among the authors of a December 2009 national study, “Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net is Failing Americans and How to Fix It.” The report noted that the economic crisis is still on the rise for millions of Americans, but the social safety net, which includes health insurance, has eroded over the past 30 years
and has failed to support millions of Americans.

“You have such large numbers of people living in poverty in the richest country in the world. That alone is a shocking stat,” Muhammad points out.

Minnesota is one of 31 U.S. states that saw increases in both the number and percentage of people in poverty between 2008 and 2009, according to the American Community Survey (ACS), a nationwide survey released September 29 that uses an annual sample size of about three million addresses across the United States and Puerto Rico.

Almost 10 percent of the state’s total population lived below poverty in 2008, and 11 percent in 2009, while 35 percent of Blacks in Hennepin County live in poverty. Blacks make up only about five percent of Minnesota’s population.

“I heard on the news this morning that Minneapolis is the best place to live,” recalls Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson as she spoke briefly to the MSR last week. Referring to the city’s “cosmetic” aspects rather addressing real problems such as growing poverty, she added, “That’s a disconnect for me.”

“I was deeply concerned about the level of [racial] disparities,” said Minnesota Budget Project Deputy Director Christina Wessel. The Minnesota Budget Project is an initiative of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, a statewide association of nearly 2,000 nonprofit organizations that does independent research, analysis and advocacy on budget and tax issues.

Wessel explained that one reason why poverty isn’t discussed much in Minnesota “is that we are such a White state that it’s easy to overlook.” But poverty “is not a Black issue or a White issue. It’s a poor person’s issue,” said Clarence Hightower, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties.

Minnesota’s child poverty rate rose from 11.7 percent in 2008 to 14.1 percent in 2009. Five counties — Ramsey (27.4 percent), Hennepin (15.9), Anoka (9.0), Dakota (8.2) and Washington (7.1) — all showed sharp increases in child poverty, along with Minneapolis (from 29.3 percent to 31.6 percent) and St. Paul (28.9 percent to 35.8 percent), compared to almost 21 percent nationwide.

The Census Bureau also reported that the number of people without health insurance increased between 2008 and 2009: from 10.8 percent to 12 percent for Whites, and from 19 percent to 21 percent for Blacks.

According to Wessel, “a dramatic shift” in the number of Minnesotans with or without health insurance has occurred since 2001. “It used to be that 77 percent of Minnesotans got their health insurance through their employer-provided coverage,” she explained. “That dropped to 69 percent, a significant decline, [and] translates to about 300,000 Minnesotans. At the same time, people receiving health care through our public programs increased by more than 300,000 — including 137,000 children.”
Wessel said her group did not have any breakdown of this data by race.

Having a job doesn’t necessarily help you avoid poverty either, says Muhammad.
“Many Americans are working at wages that, if you are the sole wage-earner, it could keep your family in poverty. The idea that you are in poverty because you are not working is not true.”

Even if the economy eventually improves, the number of “working poor” in Minnesota could continue to rise, Wessel believes. “Where we are seeing job growth is among the lowest wage jobs [such] as the retail and restaurant sectors. People may find jobs, but they are very low-paying jobs.”

As a result, poverty in the U.S., especially among Blacks and other people of color who still haven’t recovered from the 2000-01 recession, will continue to fester, notes Muhammad. He predicts a slower recovery from the current recession.

“I think we are going to see some of the worst impact of the Great Recession in 2010. I’m not clear when it is going to get any better. We can see more middle-class and working-class people falling [into] poverty. I’m concerned that it will have long-term consequences on the poverty rate in this country. That’s my greatest concern.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.