Shortly before Black History Month 2014 began, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama addressed an issue that has historically influenced the prosperity of the nation, and with disproportionate impact on that of its black citizens: the growing income gap.
“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” Obama said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.
“Today, women make up about half our workforce,” Obama continued. “But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. … Now, women hold a majority of lower-wage jobs – but they’re not the only ones stifled by stagnant wages. Americans understand that some people will earn more than others, and we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success. But Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.”
That income gap is one of the significant indicators of whether you are rich or poor, always an issue at hand in Alabama and in Birmingham. According to a 2008 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Alabama is one of the states in which the income gap between rich and poor has grown the most since 1980, and one of the states where the gap between rich and poor is the widest.
And many people who live in the state don’t get that. “People have no idea that Alabama is the seventh poorest state in the nation. … They don’t have a good sense of where we are in context with the rest of the country,” said Kristina Scott, the executive director for Alabama Possible, an organization until recently known as the Alabama Poverty Project.
Because poverty is such a critical issue in Birmingham – according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28.9 percent of people in the city live below the poverty line – Weld is looking throughout 2014 at the factors that create poverty, how those factors affect citizens in the Magic City, and what the reality of poverty looks like in a community trying to forge a cultural renaissance.
Black History Month seems an appropriate time to begin such an examination, both because poverty is a societal force with roots in history and because the entire history of black people in America, in Alabama and in Birmingham has been inextricably bound up with the plight of the poor. Not just the conventional wisdom, but the numbers, tabulated and reported by various agencies, bear this out.
Consider these statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, which appear on the website blackdemographics.com: “The poverty rate for all African Americans in 2012 was 28.1 percent, which is an increase from 25.5 percent in 2005. Actually, the poverty rate increased between 2005 and 2012 for every demographic of African Americans except those ages 65 and over, who experienced a decrease from 21.2 percent to 19 percent. Black families with children under 18 headed by a single mother have the highest rate of poverty at 47.5, compared to only 8.4 percent of married-couple black families.”
In an economy in crisis – even in one which is supposedly climbing out of crisis – certain elements have an obvious correlation to the racial income gap. The Economic Policy Institute, an organization focused on issues related to income inequality, noted last month, in a story by Heidi Shierholz, that about a fifth of black American workers were unemployed at some point in 2013.
“Though the nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, we remain a long way from reaching the goals he strove to achieve,” she wrote on Jan. 14. “From the 1960s to today, the black unemployment rate has been about 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate, and it is likely that nearly one in five black workers was unemployed at some point in 2013.”
The EPI estimated that 12.7 percent of all workers were unemployed at least some point in 2013, but that for blacks, that number stood at 19.6 percent. “The labor market is improving extremely slowly for all major groups, but the employment situation of African Americans remains at something more akin to depression-level conditions,” Shierholz wrote.
According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, black Americans had the highest rate of poverty among all racial groups in the country at 27.2 percent, or 10 million people, living below the poverty line. Compare that to Asians, with 11.7 percent, or 1.9 million people; Hispanics, 13.6 million people for a 25.6 percent rate; and non-Hispanic whites, with a 9.7 percent poverty rate, or 18.9 million people.
A closer look
Closer to home, the numbers don’t look particularly better. The Census Bureau reports, for instance, that 45.3 percent of black children in Alabama live below the poverty line. According to the Alabama Poverty Project, 30.6 percent of all blacks in Alabama are poor.
According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2008-2012, an estimated 32 percent of the black population in the city of Birmingham lived below the poverty line during the 12 months prior to their report. African-Americans in Birmingham also have a 17.6 percent unemployment rate, the 2010 Census indicates.
And in Jefferson County, census numbers show a similarly deep racial disparity. While the poverty rate for whites is 8.9 percent, for blacks the rate is 26.7 percent, and for Latinos of any race, the rate is 28.6 percent.
Nowhere has the income gap been more evident than in the African American community, where, from slaveryuntil now, the wages of blacks have forever lagged behind those of whites in this country and this state. “The state’s long history of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination helps explain the extremely high rate of poverty among African Americans,” historian Wayne Flynt wrote in the Encyclopedia of Alabama article discussing poverty in Alabama.
Narrowing the gap between rich and poor Americans of all races was the last focus of Martin Luther King’s efforts in civil rights, exemplified on the national stage more than 50 years ago by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He addressed in particular the differences between the nation’s prosperity and that of his fellow black citizens.
Noting that a century had passed since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, King said, in the “I Have a Dream” speech, “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. … When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
King was not only talking about economic disparity, but the point was clear at high point of the Civil Rights Movement that black Americans lagged behind their white fellow countrymen. In a speech he gave in Atlanta in 1967, King talked about the gains of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in various cities.
“With all the struggle and all the achievements, we must face the fact, however, that the Negro still lives in the basement of the Great Society,” King said. “He is still at the bottom, despite the few who have penetrated to slightly higher levels. Even where the door has been forced partially open, mobility for the Negro is still sharply restricted. There is often no bottom at which to start, and when there is, there’s almost no room at the top. In consequence, Negroes are still impoverished aliens in an affluent society. They are too poor even to rise with the society, too impoverished by the ages to be able to ascend by using their own resources. And the Negro did not do this himself; it was done to him.
“Even after his release from chattel slavery,” King continued, “the nation grew over him, submerging him. It became the richest, most powerful society in the history of man, but it left the Negro far behind.”
King went on to say that attacking poverty would attack many of American society’s chronic ills. “We are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. … [A] host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security.
“The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated,” King said.
“We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society,” King said, as he brought his speech to its conclusion. “There are 40 million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ … Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.”
King’s planned Poor People’s Campaign, in which he hoped to attack issues of economic justice across racial boundaries, was the direction his activism was taking when he was assassinated in 1968.
While many things have changed since King, the income gap, and the grip of poverty, particularly on black Americans, remains strong.
Local and long term
In Alabama, the reasons for poverty are rooted in social, economic and political considerations of long historical standing, Flynt noted. “During the 20th century, low taxes and the widespread middle-class mythology about the nature of poverty — that most poor people were African Americans, or lazy, shiftless ‘poor white trash’ who refused to work — produced numerous negative consequences. The state’s educational system remained in shambles, especially for blacks and rural whites, family welfare payments were the nation’s second lowest, and the state income tax by the end of the twentieth century was the nation’s most regressive, taking affect when a poor person earned only $4,600 a year.”
The poverty experienced by black families and others in the Birmingham area today “is not poverty that was brought on by the recession,” Kristina Scott of Alabama Possible said. “This is multigenerational poverty that’s caused by systems that are bigger than any one person. And poverty is difficult to solve because it is so complex. Because it is our relationships to public structures, to governments, it’s education it’s the economy and access to [living] wage-paying jobs. It’s access to health care. And it’s not just access, it’s also our ability to utilize those resources. So it makes it very difficult to solve.”
Alabama Possible, which began 20 years ago to attack poverty through faith-communities and higher education, is one of several organizations in the state which believes the iron grip of poverty can be broken – if the people have the will.
“We have seen that the history of the War on Poverty is that when there was a national call to cut poverty…the poverty rate was cut in half,” Scott said, specifically noting that from 1964 – when President Lyndon Johnson first declared the War on Poverty – to 1973, the poverty rate in the U.S. was reduced by 42 percent.
“That’s in a decade of sustained effort to cut poverty,” Scott said. “So when we have a focus on that, and we devote public and private resources to it, we [can affect] the poverty rate. But it does take a community-wide effort.
“So what gives me a lot of hope is the attention being put on the Birmingham City Schools and having so many new board members and the work of the Birmingham Education Foundation and the investments that Birmingham businesses are making into the school system,” she said. “These are all good signs for the future of the city of Birmingham. But that work needs to be sustained. The easy work is starting the conversations, but the hard work is continuing them.”
Ultimately, she believes that the problems of poverty afflicting people of all races in Birmingham won’t be solved without the concerted effort of people across demographic lines.
“This is about public and private solutions,” Scott said. “It is about churches and businesses and education systems and community groups and state and local government coming together and each group doing what they do best. We’ve got to start somewhere. This isn’t something that I think we should wait on. I think there is an urgency for everyone to say, ‘What can I do to make my life, my neighbor’s life better?’”