The town of Trafford is 26 miles from downtown Birmingham. It seems farther away, set as it is among the wooded hills and hollows of rural north central Jefferson County, hard by the railroad that opened up the area to coal mining across the two decades immediately following the founding of Birmingham in 1871. Of Trafford’s current population of 646, white residents comprise about 93 percent.
About 45 minutes’ drive southwest of Trafford — 12 miles from the downtown skyline — is the city of Brighton. Incorporated in 1901, Brighton is urbanized, having grown around the streetcar line that connected the industrial centers of Birmingham and Bessemer with its fortunes, in the words of local historian Marjorie White in The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide, “linked to those of Woodward Iron Company. … [W]hen Woodward moved out, the community closed down.” Today, the city’s population of just less than 3,000 is about 80 percent black — and about 14 percent of Hispanic origin.
What do these two very different Jefferson County communities have in common? Certainly there is the shared tie to the mine-to-mill economy that fueled the industrial growth that put Birmingham on the map and was its lifeblood until the late 1970s and into the following decade.
Another tie between Trafford and Brighton is the high prevalence of poverty within their respective boundaries. In terms of per capita income — $11,002 dollars per year in Brighton and $11,926 in Trafford — they are the two poorest municipalities in Jefferson County. By comparison, per capita incomes are $19,650 in the city of Birmingham, $23,680 statewide and $26,906 in the county as a whole.
The national average is $28,155, meaning that the average American household earns over 250 percent more than the average household in Trafford or Brighton. The per capita income in Mountain Brook — the county’s richest community — is $73,431, a figure that is well north of six times that of its poorest sister cities in Jefferson County.
Not just black and white
So what’s the point? What do these numbers mean? What do they suggest about our community? Those questions — and all of the implicit and explicit comparing and contrasting — are the foundation of this essay on poverty and race, the latest installment in Weld’s ongoing series, “Poverty in Birmingham.”
The singling out of Brighton and Trafford — one predominantly black, the other predominantly white; one urban, one rural — is meant to suggest the ways in which poverty cuts across racial lines. The poorest white people in our community are as poor as the poorest black people. Need and privation know no color. Poverty is poverty.
The national numbers on poverty itself are increasingly reflecting that changing dynamic. According to “Poverty More Than a Matter of Black and White,” an analysis published in 2012 on inequality.org — a website established and maintained by the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank based in Washington, DC — Census Bureau data showed that, as of the end of 2011, the number of white people living below poverty level was well over twice the number of blacks, 19 million to 7.8 million. Among households living in extreme poverty — at 50 percent or less of the federal poverty level — the analysis found that white households account for 42 percent of the total and black households for 27.
These data have political implications that racial stereotyping usually shroud from public view, wrote the article’s author, Robert Ross, a sociologist at Clark University, in Massachusetts. Many white people who don’t live anywhere near poverty, even many who consider themselves liberal, think blacks compose most of the poor. Large numbers of these white Americans feel no emotional connection to the problems poor people face. They perceive poverty as a problem of some other community, not their own.
If those white Americans who felt this way actually had to confront the demographic reality of poverty, if they came to understand that white people make up the single largest group of the poor, how white America thinks about poverty and policy might start changing.
Well-meaning white Americans have for decades been aware that black people face the risk of poverty [more] than whites. But “poverty,” we all need to understand, is more and different than “race.”
What does that mean to us in Birmingham? Here’s a highly unscientific test of Ross’s thesis: Preparing to write this essay, I extemporaneously asked at least 15 people — divided roughly equally by race and gender — to close their eyes, to fix in their minds a picture of a poor person, and then to tell me the race of that person. With only a single exception, the response was, “Black.”
What else does it mean? It might mean that Ross was correct, and that, in the words of the summary of the article that appeared beneath its headline on inequality.org, “Far too many Americans still see poverty and poor people through a racial prism that distorts demographic realities — and undermines efforts to narrow income inequalities.”
And if true, that might mean that addressing poverty in Birmingham — meaning the multitude of issues that have contributed to the widespread incidence and crushing persistence of poverty in this community — could provide a means of removing race relations as a barrier to growth and development that benefits the community at large. Changing our perceptions of poverty might shape our approaches to it in meaningful ways, and place Birmingham once again at the forefront of quantum advances in human relations and general prosperity.
A question of access
But not so fast.
As Ross alluded above, if you are black, you are statistically more likely than your white counterparts, by a substantial margin, to be born into poverty, and to live and die in it. You are less likely to emerge to from poverty, because chances are that, as a direct result of your poverty, you will attend inferior schools; suffer from more and potentially graver health problems; be disproportionately affected by ingrained attitudes and practices in areas such as housing, mass transit, economic and community development, and the availability and accessibility of cultural and recreational amenities; have fewer and less rewarding opportunities for higher education, employment and career planning; make less money over the course of your life. For most people in the Birmingham region, you are the face of poverty.
“In some ways, we haven’t progressed as much as we might like to think,” says Deidre Clark. “I like Birmingham, but the real issue is access to resources, and the resources are not distributed in proportion to need. By no means does it always boil down to race. But we know that blacks are more likely to be affected by poverty, and to be identified with poverty.”
Clark is 33 years old, a Birmingham native and a graduate of Jackson-Olin High School and the University of Alabama (“I had dreams of being an attorney,” she says with a laugh. “But I changed my mind, and here I am with a degree in English and a minor in African-American Studies.”). She is a birth doula, and is the founding director of Kuumba Community Art, which provides art classes and workshops for all ages at its space in Ensley.
Clark grew up in Ensley’s Sherman Heights neighborhood, her father a college graduate who worked as a disease intervention specialist for the Jefferson County Department of Health. Clark recalls that she and “almost all” of her friends in the neighborhood grew up in homes where both parents were present — “a lot of two-parent homes, stable marriages,” she remembers. Of the neighborhood, she says it was “pretty safe then,” but “has changed a lot” in more recent years.
Clark contrasts the stable environment of the Sherman Heights of the 1980s and early ‘90s with the poverty-ridden area around the Ensley housing project where her grandmother lived. The Tuxedo Court project — the Birmingham Housing Authority razed it in 2006 and used $20 million in federal “HOPE VI” housing funds to replace it with what is now known as Tuxedo Terrace — was known locally as “The Brickyard.” Clark spent a good deal of time with her grandmother, and says that even as a child, the differences were clear to her.
“It felt like I was growing up in two different places,” Clark says. “The Brickyard was almost the complete opposite of Sherman Heights. I had friends that I played with when I was there, and nobody that I can think of who grew up there had both parents. Of course, it was mostly single mothers. I had some good friends right across the alley from my grandmother, lived with their mother. She worked at the Burger King downtown. That was the most obvious difference to me, the way that families were made up — that and the level of safety.”
When Clark was 12, she lost her 18-year-old brother to gun violence. He was at a party where one boy pulled a gun during an argument with another, and Clark’s brother took a bullet to the back while trying to take cover. Other than those details, she doesn’t elaborate, turning the conversation instead to her college experience. She dropped out after her freshman year because she was living on her own and couldn’t use her parents’ income to qualify for a student loan.
“I sat out of college for three years,” she says. “When I went back, I had started to see things a little bit differently. I could look at the disparities, look at someone who was white and kind of say, ‘Your world doesn’t look like mine. And there’s a reason for that.’ I began to question why someone born in Mountain Brook, for example, should get a better education than someone who lives in Ensley. Why don’t we have equal access?”
Special challenges for black women
The general and particular impacts of poverty on women — particularly on women who live alone, and most particularly on single mothers — also cut across racial lines. But, as with poverty in general, there are glaring racial disparities. In the Birmingham region as a whole, more than 60 percent of all households are headed by single women with children, or single women living alone, and the total number of women and girls living in poverty is well over 80,000 — numbers that are disproportionately black. In Jefferson County, 37 percent of single women of color live in poverty, compared to 18 percent of white female heads of household.
Those numbers come from the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, which advocates for, and funds efforts dedicated to, making systemic changes that increase the economic security of women and girls. This includes initiatives in such areas as living wage guidelines, housing, increased access to education and jobs and skills training, public transportation and revision of state tax policies to include, among other things, income tax deductions for childcare costs.
In carrying out its funding strategy, the Women’s Fund primarily applies what its president and CEO, Jeanne Jackson, calls “a gender lens.” The organization works with women of all races — but, Jackson adds, the statistics are “unavoidable.”
“We recognize that African-American women face discrimination based on their gender and their race,” says Jackson. “The move beyond poverty is complex and challenging for any single woman. The challenges for a single mom balancing work and raising children are daunting. However, if you are a single mother and African-American, the likelihood of your being in poverty is dramatically higher in all five counties that we serve.
“We know the issues,” Jackson continues. “Those are the same across the board. It’s education, it’s training, it’s employment, it’s transportation. But there is some reason why it’s harder for African-American women to get out of poverty, and those things have to be addressed.”
Wanting the same things
Jackson makes the case for the criticality of addressing racial disparities — and, in the case of her organization, related gender disparities — to the notion of alleviating poverty in Birmingham. At the same time, she agrees that the success of the kind of “comprehensive, collaborative programs” supported by the the Women’s Fund feeds racial progress on a broader scale.
Zac Henson also supports the idea of collaboration. An adjunct professor of anthropology at Auburn University, Henson also is the founder and a board member of the Magic City Agriculture Project, an organization formed to promote economic and food justice through urban agriculture.
MCAP also conducts anti-racism workshops and advocates using worker-owned cooperatives and other small entrepreneurial ventures as the basis for building strong, neighborhood-centric economies. Henson believes that such efforts will represent a sort of oblique approach to improving race relations, with better relations arising from working together toward both individual and shared interests.
“There doesn’t have to be some great meeting of the minds,” says Henson. “If there is a program where poor whites and poor blacks share interests that align — such as reducing poverty and promoting real economic growth at the community level — they can become allies almost without knowing it. It’s in the self-interest of lower income people to support each other. And in doing that, you could conceivably overcome a lot of racial barriers.”
Henson muses that such a plan — and such an outcome — would have to work on both the micro level, rebuilding and revitalizing communities from the ground up, and the macro level of having the ability — and the political will — to leverage substantial public and private support to create replicable models for urban vitality. Eliminating poverty and racism in Birmingham is a noble goal, and one that may be joined in more ways than can be known or appreciated if one’s attention is only on the immediate term.
“The key to adapting to change is creativity in how we approach these longstanding problems,” Henson says. “But it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. We’re talking about a 30-to-50-year plan. Which means we need to get started.”
Deidre Clark says she’s most interested to see what Birmingham looks like in “five or 10 years.” Echoing a thought expressed by Henson, Clark is concerned with whether Birmingham can maintain the delicate balance between gentrification and displacement, and wonders “how it will play out on the neighborhood level” as racial dynamics change. There are conversations that need to take place, actions that need to be taken — but just because those things happen is no guarantee of success.
“I hope that in the name of progress, we don’t do more harm than good,” Clark says. “We just need to stay focused on the fact that, when you get right down to it, we all want the same things. We all want to live in a whole, healthy community.
“That’s the key to people finding their way out of poverty. And if you’re making that happen, we’re going to progress in all of the areas where we’ve always fallen short.”