Poverty and African-Americans

According to the measure of poverty used by the US federal government, a family of four can be described as poor if its annual income is about or less than USD 16,000. Dire (severe or extreme) poverty is the situation of a family with income equal to a half of this poverty level.

Using these criteria, it is estimated that the poverty rate among African Americans has increased from 19.3 percent in 2000 to 24.2 percent in 2006, marking an annual rise of 0.8 percent. Cornell and Washington University researchers report that the vast majority of African Americans suffer from poverty during adulthood. The research findings show that 9 out of every 10 African Americans, or 91 percent, who reach the age of 75 (the average American life expectancy) spend at least one of their adult years in poverty. Moreover, 66 percent of African Americans will have spent at least one year of their adult life in dire poverty by the age 75.

Taking into account data from the US Census, it can be observed that gains across a range of economic indicators that the African American community were encouraged by in the 1990s had been largely extinguished after 2000. The percentage of African Americans living in poverty rose from 2000 to 2006 by an average of 0.82 percent annually. This compares to a fall by an average of 1.25 percent annually in the 1990s.

The positive trends seen in the 1990s can be attributed to beneficial outcomes from the passage of equal opportunity legislation during the civil rights era and the overall economic growth experienced in the United States after the end of the recession of 1990 and 1991. However, different strata of the African American community were affected differently by the these developments. Educated and skilled African Americans enjoyed considerable upward social and business mobility, as they could get jobs in areas where they had not been allowed to previously.

Many African Americans with poorer skills and education were enrolled in blue-collar jobs. Deindustrialization resulted in many blue-collar jobs being trimmed or relocated, resulting in hefty unemployment rates and poverty among low-skilled African Americans. Factors that exacerbated the impact of deindustrialization were the shift towards information-based economy and computerized data management, as well as the relocation of many jobs to other parts of a city or even abroad.

These economic differences within the African American community have sparked a number of studies. Among the most influential reports are The Declining Significance of Race (1980) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) by American sociologist William Julius Wilson (b.1935). His ideas were taken up later by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (b.1950), who argued that there existed "two nations of Black America."

In the 21st century, the median income of African Americans has fallen by an average of 1.3 percent every year from 2000 to 2006, after having increased by an average of 2.2 percent annually in the 1990s. Unemployment levels for African Americans have risen by an average of 0.1 percent since 2000, following a consistent annual decrease of 0.4 percent during the 1990s. The factors that have spurred this deterioration in economic fortunes including the increasing segregation of communities in cities, the rise of the number of single-parent households, dominated by families with a single teenage mother, along with persistent discrimination.

Although the changes seen in the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s promoted racial equality, the US labor market still displays signs of discrimination between blacks and whites. The unemployment rate for African Americans in 2007 stood at 8.3 percent, compared with 4.1 percent unemployment rate for white Americans. Census data shows that in 2006 only 8.2 percent of the white population was living in poverty, against a 24.2 percent figure for African Americans.

In addition, lenders are reported to extend more expensive mortgage loans to African Americans. Data obtained under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act showed that more than 53 percent of home-purchase loans extended to African Americans in 2006 fell into the category of "high-cost" - against 18 percent for white Americans. Lower-levels of education attained by some African Americans can also result in poverty. As a result, the number with investment portfolios has been low. This, in turn, has led to fewer African Americans making use of private retirement plans and an increased number counting on state-funded entitlement schemes.

Poverty and African-Americans: Selected full-text books and articles

Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History By Alice O'connor Princeton University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "From the Deep South to the Dark Ghetto: Poverty Knowledge, Racial Liberalism, and Cultural 'Pathology'"
Poverty in America: A Handbook By John Iceland University of California Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: "African American Poverty" begins on p. 81
Reparations to Poverty: Domestic Policy in America Ten Years after the Great Society By Brigitta Loesche-Scheller Peter Lang, 1995
Librarian's tip: "Mainstream versus Minorities" begins on p. 159
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