Gap Closes between Blacks and Whites Gains by African-Americans Outpace Those of US as a Whole, as Economy Carries Blacks Closer to Parity

Article excerpt

On the long march toward equality, black Americans are making rapid strides, narrowing the economic gap between blacks and whites to a degree that some analysts now call "unprecedented."

Poverty is declining. Unemployment is falling. Optimism is growing. And it's happening at record rates.

The change is mostly driven by the economy: A higher minimum wage and a tight labor market mean more of the nation's poor - many of whom are black - can find decent-paying jobs. It's affecting everything from the stock market to politics - including today's elections. To be sure, the black-white economic gap persists, and racism often lingers, but more black Americans are achieving the economic stability that has eluded so many for so long. Among the gains is a decline in poverty. In 1989, 30.8 percent of blacks qualified as poor. By 1997, 26.5 percent did. Poverty among whites actually grew slightly during that time (and now stands at 11 percent). "That's huge progress for blacks," says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "People don't realize the magnitude of the decline. It's totally unprecedented." Moreover, incomes for African-American households jumped 16.8 percent, or $3,600, in the past six years - nearly three times faster than incomes for the nation as a whole, according to new Census Bureau data. The progress isn't lost on people like Patrick Isom, an executive with the National Futures Association in New York. He grew up in the projects in East Harlem. His father has long worked for the post office. Although his career has barely begun, "I'm already making as much as my dad," he says with a hint of amazement. He and his wife own a new three-bedroom duplex in an upscale block in Harlem. They're expecting their second child. Many other black Americans recognize the change. In a poll last month, 51 percent said they're better off financially than they were last year. Just 32 percent of whites said the same in the survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which monitors black issues. That economic security affects the way blacks view President Clinton: Eighty-five percent said he's doing a good job. "When people say they're doing well financially, they tend to give good {presidential} job ratings," says David Bositis, the center's chief political analyst. "That could make the difference for Clinton and the Democrats this year." Democrats, recognizing blacks' potential to bail them out in this scandal-tinged election year, have courted them aggressively. …