As reported in last week's New Pittsburgh Courier, there are more African-American families living in poverty than at any time since the U.S. Census Bureau began gathering such statistics. Though the poverty rate increased for all ethnic groups, the increase was greatest among Blacks.
While it is not surprising to see poverty increase during a prolonged recession, the report also showed that despite anti-poverty programs dating back to the 1960s, since 1987, median annual income for African-Americans has consistently lagged behind non-Hispanic Whites. The income difference in 2009 was almost $22,000.
Derdrick Muhammad, senior organizer and research associate for the Institute for Policy Studies, said the report not only reaffirms the economic divide between Blacks and Whites, but also indicates it may be getting worse.
"In 2008, Blacks were making about $.62 for every dollar Whites made. Last year it was $.60," he said. "In the mid-1970s it had narrowed to about $.50 on the dollar. I think the only way to bridge this gap is to have a progressive economy like we had in the 1940s."
Muhammad said the federal government cannot, of course, copy a wartime economy, but it can pursue policies to create jobs and educational opportunities. He said massive subsidies for "green jobs" and infrastructure improvement would be two areas where such policies should be focused.
"But with infrastructure, there has to be a racial equity component so we can demand diversity from contractors," he said. "To me, the economy isn't the problem, it's the lack of political will. So I don't see this happening any time soon."
Derrick Boykin, Northeast regional organizer for Bread For The World, said the census numbers show people who have never been in poverty before now are, largely as a result of the extended recession. That number could continue to grow for some working families as tax rate reductions authorized during the Bush administration expire.
"If the Earned Income Tax Credit and The Child Tax Credit are allowed to expire, 1.5 million more people—half of them children—will be thrown into poverty," he said. "We also need to see continued authorization for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. While these are immediate concerns, they apply to the longer-term poverty and income issues for African-Americans because without them, we'll be even further behind than we are now."
Although Pittsburgh hasn't been as deeply hit by the recession as some other areas, the poverty rate for African-Americans in the city is 40.4 percent, for African-American children, the rate is 43.5 percent. Those figures are nearly double the national averages that record 25.8 percent of Blacks in poverty and more than 33 percent of Black children.
Locally, aside from agencies like Just Harvest, which helps people with hunger issues, and works every tax season to get as many families to claim the EITC and CTC as possible, most efforts are directed toward education as a means out of poverty.
With that in mind, Community College of Allegheny County has shifted a number of its services toward job placement rather than career enhancement, in an effort to help.
"Since January 2009, we've given tuition waivers to more than 325 dislocated workers, and the program was just recognized as a 'Bright Idea' by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University," said College spokesman David Hoovler. "We have eight programs eligible for any county resident laid off in the last year. We've tried to offer training in areas on the state's high priority list."
For the upcoming spring term, these job programs include accounting, automotive technology, computer assisted drafting, early childhood education, nurses' assistant training, IT support, business management, and administrative computer specialist.
The displaced worker program is available to any county resident who lost their job due to the recession as long as they apply within a year of the job loss.
"To help with chronic unemployment or underemployment, we just started our Young Adult Empowerment Program," said Hoovler. "It's aimed at 17- to 24-year-olds and provides supportive services to get GEDs and move on into career programs like HVAC and automotive technology."
The college has also created a new job search engine that allows people to search for employment based on their particular skills rather than just by job or industry titles.
Additionally, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services created a Web page called Help in Hard Times that offers links to an array of services struggling families may need. Deputy Director of DHS Reggie Young said he hasn't read the report, but believes in the long run education is the best way out of poverty.
"In the city, we have the Pittsburgh Promise, which is great because the number of kids not staying in school adds to the problem," he said. "When they drop out they have the military. Low wage jobs are life on the street. We're doing all we can to get people housing, food services, and counseling. People are using CareerLinks but our resources aren't endless. We have to hope this economy turns around."