Exclusive Commentary

To End Child Poverty, We Must Confront Race

Sterling K. Speirn, W.K. Kellogg Foundation - Posted September 12, 2012


America has an urgent need to address escalating child poverty, a circumstance that will severely limit the life outcomes of future generations.

 

New 2011 national child poverty data released this week revealed that there are 16.1 million poor children in America—roughly 22 percent of the nation’s youth. The data shows that child poverty is rampant in communities of color, where unemployment is double the national average and residents confront higher risks for chronic diseases, public schools with fewer resources, many environmental hazards, and other conditions created by structural inequities in our society. In fact, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in 2010, more than 37 percent of the poor children in America were Latinos, 30 percent were white and 25 percent were African Americans. The numbers are rapidly escalating. The number of black and Hispanic children living in poverty grew by nearly 800,000 between 2009 and 2011.

 

What’s clear is that the level of child poverty will have grave implications for America’s future. Unless the nation improves the quality of life for children, the next generation won’t be prepared to carry the torch and sustain our democracy. And, in addressing child poverty, America must recognize that race is as big a factor – if not more significant – than economics. 

 

Today, the barriers faced by children of color, as well as adults, are far less obvious than the overt discrimination practiced much of the last century. It’s no longer acceptable (or legal) for blacks to be forced to the back of the bus or to drink from separate water fountains. But it’s often the result of implicit racial bias when black and Latino youths can’t get adequate healthcare or are far more likely to be incarcerated than whites. 

 

America’s new challenge is confronting this unconscious bias—the harmful decisions and actions by judges, police officers, teachers, doctors, and others, who unconsciously discriminate.         

 

It’s never easy to talk about race, and its implications. The task becomes even more difficult in troubled economic times when families are preoccupied with their own struggles—keeping their jobs, preventing foreclosure of their homes, and paying college tuition for their children. Many whites believe that America has entered a “post-racial” era in which racial bias no longer has a major impact on people of color.

 

Yet the nation, especially the majority of our poor children, cannot afford for this myth to be accepted as fact. The reality is that the legacy and effects from centuries of a systemic racial hierarchy and privilege continues to exist as evidenced by the vast racial inequities from education to housing, wealth, unemployment, incarceration rates, and other quality-of-life measurements.

 

As the numbers show, 71.5 percent of poor children in America are black or Latinos. A survey conducted by the National Voices Project found that adults who work closely with young people – including educators, social workers, and healthcare providers – believe that “minority children and teenagers have fewer opportunities than white counterparts to be healthy, obtain a quality education and achieve economic success.”

 

These perceptions are backed by fact. Children of color face systemic racial barriers to their success, similar to obstructions encountered by generations before them, particularly residential segregation. As highlighted by a special report from DiversityData.org in September 2010, “[C]lose to half (43 percent) of white students attend schools with poverty rates of 20 percent or less, compared with just seven percent of black and Hispanic students. In contrast, 43 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools with poverty rates over 80 percent, compared to four percent of whites.”

 

In these challenging times, how can America address this problem?

 

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we believe that talking courageously across racial lines about these racial barriers is critical towards helping the nation to eradicate poverty and ensure that all children have equitable opportunities to succeed. In 2010, the foundation launched America Healing, a multi-year effort that supports organizations working to eliminate structural racism and promote racial healing. It is important for the nation to understand the past, while moving forward to address racial barriers faced today.

 

In the Chicago area, the Jane Addams Hull House, a community and social services agency, is convening Community Accountability Councils of policymakers, public agency executives, community activists, and youth leaders to examine data on income, employment, education, housing, health, and other key indicators. The Councils will look for racial inequities in the data and use their analysis to recommend reforms to public policies and social practices.

 

In California, Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, a community-based peace movement to prevent violence among youth in Santa Cruz County, addresses racial inequities and the disproportionately high representation of incarcerated African American and Latino youth. Barrios Unidos enables youth of color to decrease violent behavior and individually heal in culturally grounded ways through prevention, intervention, and training programs. Barrios Unidos has developed a model that seeks to reclaim and restore the lives of struggling youth of color while promoting unity among families and neighbors through community building efforts.

 

In Mississippi, the Center for Social Inclusion recently partnered with the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to host a public hearing that engaged residents and local leaders in a discussion on the lack of broadband access in low-income communities of color. The public conversation, in addition to community focus groups, resulted in a landmark study that demonstrates that race predicts access to broadband technology in the state. Broadband access is a staple in social and economic stability, linking families to critical health services, as well as employment and educational opportunities.

 

Also in Mississippi, the William Winter Institute spearheaded an effort to mandate a civil rights and human rights curriculum for every Mississippi student. “We all understand that we will not attain the economic health of which the state is capable without addressing the issue of race,” said Susan Glisson, the Institute’s Executive Director.

 

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, has articulated a common vision of social justice work, where communities of color work together on shared challenges such as HIV/AIDS, early and adult education, affordable housing, environmental protection, and ensuring that U.S. economic policies address the disproportionate pain the economic downturn has inflicted on communities of color.

 

A disproportionate number of children who are vulnerable socioeconomically, who are born into single parent families without the resources they need or who are being born into under-resourced communities are children of color. Yet still, the future is born every day, and it is the collective commitment to our children – to all our children – through investing in our kids that will provide equal access to opportunity.


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Sterling K. Speirn is president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan.

 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@spotlightonpoverty.org.