June 2, 2020
In every measure contributing to well-being African Americans experience significant deprivations. African American poverty was 20.8% in 2018, compared to 11.8% of the general population. African American wages are still depressed, compared to white wages, even as the education gap has closed significantly. Ninety percent of African American in young adulthood (25-29) now has a high school diploma and the portion with college degrees has doubled since 1968 to 2018 though it still represents only half as many degrees (22.8%) as in the white population (42.1%) of the same age.
African American workers bring home 82.5 cents to the dollar white workers receive, even when education level is controlled for. African American workers experience 2.5 times the poverty of white workers. Black and Latino workers represent 44.1% of the workers who would benefit from a federal minimum wage of fifteen dollars. African Americans are twice as likely as white workers to be unemployed. When household income is considered, African Americans accrue 40% less than average white households.
The starkest disparity, however, can be seen in wealth where the average African American family is worth only 10% of the wealth held by white families. Average African American wealth has actually decreased from 1983-2016. Moreover, the African American family is more likely to depend on that small asset for basic needs in retirement; children’s college education; down payments for a home; and crises arising from unemployment or illness. College debt is higher among African Americans averaging $26,000 for men and $30,000 for women.
Wealth is a measure which speaks to intergenerational well-being since often a young couple buys a first home with help from their parents. Owning a home speaks volumes regarding quality of life since neighborhoods where more people own their home tend to have better schools, recreation, services, and safety. When African Americans buy homes, even in the middle class, they are steered to less affluent areas than their white counterparts. Additionally, African Americans are twice as likely to be turned down for mortgages and are given no reason in 52% of these denials. African Americans are 105% more likely to be charged a higher interest rate and greater fees.
Lending gaps have contracted very little in fifty years and costs not at all. In the fifty years from 1968-2018, the portion of home ownership among the African American population has remained stagnant and is currently 30% less than among white families. A HUD study of renters revealed that African Americans suffered barriers to “favorable” neighborhoods in that they were shown fewer units, charged higher rents, and denied leases when compared to whites. As a result, they are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty and in areas with less educational resources; less job opportunities; and fewer services. African Americans, as a result of wage and job discrimination, are more likely to become homeless representing 40% of that population and comprising only 13% of the US population. Discrimination against ex-convicts also contributes to homelessness and unemployment due to laws limiting access to public housing and other programs. The rate of incarceration of African Americans tripled between 1968-2018.
Various measures of quality of life show an equally dismal condition. African Americans are twice as likely as white households to experience food insecurity, meaning that they have to reduce their intake and/or change their eating patterns. African Americans are more likely to be in food deserts where access to fresh produce is limited and there is a dependence on convenient stores and small grocery stores equal higher prices.
The areas of health insurance, health care, and mental health also reveal the stark realities of African American life today. Not only are African Americans more likely to be uninsured and under insured, they also pay more for their health insurance. Almost ten percent are uninsured and 18% of adults are underinsured. Even more significant is the cost of insurance. The average white family pays about 11% of their income on health insurance premiums; copays; deductibles, and pharmacy items whereas the average African American household spends 20% of the household income solely on premiums. African Americans are highly likely to be concentrated in the states that did not buy into federal Medicaid expansion. This program allows for Medicaid to be extended to those making a little more than the official federal poverty level. These states include seven southern states, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. The residents who do not gain Medicaid coverage because they make too much do not make enough to qualify for tax credits to gain subsidies and so they are the segment which is likely to fall through the cracks, remaining uninsured.
Due to all of the above-mentioned circumstances, the African American community suffers more avoidable illness; greater maternal and child mortality; pregnancy complications; lack any consistent or quality care; depends on emergency rooms for non-emergency conditions; and often just goes without treatment. The latter situation is even more pronounced in areas of mental health and substance abuse. It is no wonder that the death rates are greater, and the longevity less, among this group.
Racism begins with the history of slavery; it persists in state sanctioned policies today. Slave labor is estimated as corresponding to 14 trillion dollars in unpaid work. But unpaid, poorly remunerated labor of African American extends through reconstruction to the New Deal, where the population was restricted to occupational segregation sanctioned by government programs. The Freedman’s Bureau encouraged former slaves to remain with the families they worked for in agricultural and domestic labor. The newly freed citizens could be fined if they sought work outside these areas. Laws were passed to prohibit ads for better jobs in distant locales and recruiters could not provide any financial assistance.
With the New Deal institutionalized disparities in jobs and wages again was supported by legislation. Innovations of the Fair labor Standards Act of 1938 initiated a 40-hour work week, overtime, child labor laws, and a minimum wage. African Americans were excluded from jobs with better working conditions, benefit, and collective bargaining. The jobs they inhabited, in agriculture and domestic work were excluded from the legislation where there was no minimum wage, set work week, benefits or oversight. By the mid twentieth century, when agricultural jobs were contracting and domestic labor was becoming mechanized, unfair lending practices in the Department of Agriculture, lynching, discriminatory lending, and the KKK drove African Americans north and west seeking better opportunities. Once resettled, many of the newly migrated workers were subjected to de facto segregation in low wage domestic and service work even if they escaped the Jim Crow mandates of their southern origins.
Laws integrating this discrimination into the institutional structure are seen in such areas as tipped servers’ minimum wages which can be as low as $2.13. Only seven sates mandate that serving staff must be paid the federal minimum wage guaranteed to other workers. “Right to work” laws, which establish that nonunion workers benefiting from union contracts cannot have a portion of union dues deducted, exist in eight of the ten states with the highest portions of African American workers. Agencies like the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission, which are supposed to ensure fairness in the workplace, are severely underfunded and can investigate a fraction of received complaints. Agencies which advocate for fair treatment and support of workers have been underfunded.
The stress of poverty on the body and community cannot be underestimated. It affects everything from health, to family life, to community standards. One sure fix is to put more money into protective government agencies and make them accountable for their mandates. Another policy, pointed out by experts in the field, suggests that all the tax money that has been used to increase policing efforts should be shifted to create better social programs addressing labor conditions and the safety net. Massive re-evaluation of jobs, and their value, would likely result in increased wages but nothing really can replace incorporating a living wage, healthcare for all (unattached to employment), and decent costs for housing, education, and daycare/preschool.
Another more controversial remedy refers to reparations for slavery. Many African American leaders suggest that funds be made available to African American communities to be used for programs they develop to support the progress of their communities as they see fit. That seems like an overdue step in acknowledging the hundreds of years of systemic exploitation.