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The Impact of Poverty in African American Communities Essay

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Updated: Feb 23rd, 2021

The word poverty is synonymous with the African American communities of the United States. This is unfortunate, as this particular segment of American society has been deprived of adequate government attention and the necessary labor and social services necessary to participate in economic growth. Since the dawn of the 20th century, the story of poverty in African American communities is one of recurrent poverty, a cycle that can be broken only by political successes that lead to economic opportunities.

From the 1880s up to the 1920s, Gutman (1976) revealed in his extensive research on poverty that a large number of African American families were previously living in nuclear families. In addition, Gutman’s study also pointed out that the significant impact of the urban migrations from the 1920s-1940s had resulted in massive changes in the African American family structure.

During this same period, Gutman further explained that the African Americans’ expansion into an urban proletariat led to the creation and development of a new Black middle class, thus, easing up the African Americans’ experience with poverty. The Black middle-class workers had the chance to land in semi-skilled jobs in the manufacturing, communication, transportation, and trade sectors (Gutman, 1976).

At the time of the Great Migration, many of the northern African American communities contended with the context of poverty and the reality of residential segregation as the ghetto slowly began to form, and Black become centralized in urban areas. Despite the continuing migration to other states, African Americans still continued to work heavily under the prevailing disproportionate rates of poverty (Massey & Denton, 1993).

The main outcome of this poverty among the African American community was dilapidated housing, poor emergency care, poor health care, increasing vice, crime, and residential segregation that paved the way for many families to produce communities that has a segment of the African American middle class. Fortunately, this development created a strong semblance of political stability and community leadership (Trotter, 1993). It is also highly evident that the African American families have to cope with the accumulated demands of rapidly increasing amounts of debt, skyrocketing gas and food prices, recurrent job losses, and a tidal wave of home foreclosures. This leadership would years later come to serve as a voice for their community.

Based on the US Bureau of Census Data, the poverty among the African American communities still persisted in the 1970s. About 40% or more of the African American residents still lived in poverty. In the 1980s, based on the census data that was culled from the five largest American cities, poverty among African Americans was still very evident and recurrent. The census figures showed that approximately 68% of the total poor whites lived in non-poverty areas, while only approximately 15% of poor African Americans lived in non-poverty areas (James, 2008).

By 1990, approximately 11.2 million people lived in severely disadvantaged neighborhoods, and over 50% of them were people of African descent. In contrast, a mere 11.8% of the residents in the poor communities were white. Furthermore, in 2005, approximately 40% of all the poor African Americans lived in extreme poverty areas (James 2008).

It is clear that most of the urban African Americans were among the most financially affected by the sudden economic changes during the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, an estimated number of 43.6 million people live in poverty. Of the 43.6 million who are poor, approximately 9.9 million are African-Americans. Between 2008 and 2009, the African-Americans registered a one percent increase in the number of individuals who are living in extreme poverty. This figure effectively translates to a situation where 26 percent of African-Americans are under the federal poverty line. Then nearly half of all African American children are also living below the federal poverty line (James, 2008).

The great majority of African Americans also experience poverty during their adulthood. Nine out of every 10 black Americans who have reached the age of 75 had already spent at least one-half of their adult years in poverty. This figure also correlates with the fact that “on the average, approximately 60 percent of all African American adults will experience at least one year of living below the poverty line, then another one-third of these Americans will also experience a period of dire poverty (Hirschl and Rank, 1999).

The study findings also showed that by age 75, more than half (or 52.6 percent) of the white Americans would have spent at least one of their adult years below the federal poverty line. It is important to note that Age 75 is the average American life expectancy based on the current figures. This study has as its reference the nationally representative data sample consisting of a total of 4,800 households and 18,000 individuals that were culled by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan (Hirschl and Rank, 1999).

Based on a comparative perspective, the poverty figures point to the reality that one of two white Americans experiences poverty in their lifetime. However, poverty is more endemic among the African American population. Specifically, by the age of 25, the study findings noted that approximately 48.1 percent of African Americans would have already experienced at least one year in poverty. Then once they reach the age of 40, approximately 60% of the African Americans had experienced at least one year of living below the poverty line. Then by the age of 50, approximately 75% of the African Americans had already experienced at least one year of poverty. Then by the age of 75, more than 90 percent of the African Americans would have lived at least one year below the poverty line (Hirschl and Rank, 1999).

Based on an analytical perspective, one can state that by age 28, the African American population will have attained the cumulative level of lifetime poverty that the white population had thoroughly experience by the age of 75. To put it simply, the African Americans had experienced nine years longer in living below the poverty line compared to what the whites had undergone in 56 years. The fact that virtually every African American will experience poverty at some point during their adulthood speaks volumes as to the economic meaning of being black in America (Hirschl and Rank, 1999).

Some theorists floated the concept that the main reason why the African American families are living in poverty was due to their culture and also to their consequent “failure” to prepare their children for active and meaningful participation in the mainstream society (Hill, 1999). However, this type of analysis is without any clear basis at all.

In related studies, Gephart and Brooks-Gunn (1993) defined the “urban underclass” as characterized by these basic elements: (1) the recurrence and/or intergenerational transmission of poverty; (2) a strong geographic concentration; (3) the experience of social isolation from the mainstream society; (4) recurring unemployment and underemployment (5) lower technical competence and low level of education, and (6) lifetime membership in a minority group (Gans 1990). Also stressed is the fact that most people regard the African Americans and the Hispanics as the underclass of America.

Rutter (1987) pointed to the indispensable protective mechanisms that are common practice among the low-income African American families that are essential in enhancing resilience among their children: 1) decreasing the negative outcomes by lessening the child’s total exposure to risk or changing the risk altogether; 2) drastically reducing the negative chain reactions following a child’s exposure to risk; 3) establishing and maintaining self- esteem; and 4) the facilitation of adequate and appropriate opportunities.

Despite the common experience of an economically-deprived childhood, it is interesting to discover that most of the African American minority youth are able to stay, endure, develop, and mature within the high-risk environments. These high-risk environments consist of systematic structural obstacles to success that encompass family background, neighborhood setting, and school environment. The strengths of African American families and their children reveal their strong ability to adapt and cope in the face of limited opportunities and adverse circumstances (Stevenson, 1998).

Despite the recurrent US economic growth, the persistence of poverty and extreme poverty continued to beset the African-American communities. Despite the fact that the US has been described as a post-racial society where equal opportunity abounds, there remains a disproportionate percent of African-Americans living in poverty. Poor children and youth who are born into these families are less likely to graduate from high school. They are also more likely to become teen parents and less likely to be fully employed as young adults.

Approximately three-fourths of the total number of African-American children spend at least part of their childhood in poverty, and about 30 percent of them are persistently poor. For these African American children, their being poor in childhood is regarded as a high predictor of poverty once they reach early adulthood. This baffling phenomenon does not hold true for white children.

Moreover, the Urban Institute came out with a long-term study that had examined the longitudinal data from 1968 to 2005. The Urban Institute study revealed that only six percent of white children who were poor at birth were living in poverty as young adults, compared to 41 percent of African-Americans, had fully completed high school education. Less than a third were able to obtain a high school diploma.

There are studies that have affirmed and expounded that the African American children who are living in high poverty areas are constantly exposed to raw violence and mental health problems. These children also tend to experience child abuse and child neglect. Most of these children tend to drop out of high school and to have children in their teens.

It is essential that the US government take a more pro-active policy and approach to serve the poor and the underprivileged, particularly in impoverished communities of color. Federal agencies need to give a particular focus to the struggling African-Americans communities in America. The nation’s policies and the full implementation of those specific policies that take place in the states and local communities should be able to carefully target at desired outcomes for the African-American community.

The stark experience of poverty among local communities is clearly seen in the short story entitled, “This Is What It Means when you say Phoenix, Arizona.” This poignant short story clearly shows the strong symbolism of poverty that is prevalent within African American communities. The story has a simple narrative and plot. The story revolved around the life of a young man named Victor, who had to struggle with the dilemma of bringing back the body of his father to his village despite his tight financial situation.

The story sets the setting in a small tribal land where Victor and his mother and his siblings live. Victor’s father lived in a public trailer park. A trailer park is defined as a semi-permanent or permanent area that is designed to contain mobile homes or travel trailers. Based on the prevailing cultural practice in America, the main reasons for living in trailer parks are the lower cost of living compared to the other forms of housing. The trailer parks are for persons who either take odd jobs, or they have no permanent jobs, hence, they have the ability to move to a new area more quickly and affordable.

For example, Victor’s dad must have settled for a job in the services sector, which is irregular, contractual in nature, and it is also a job that pays less compared to other forms of jobs. The fact that his father lived alone means that he is a person of modest means. Most of the residents of trailer parks have occupants who live at or below the federal poverty line. These types of residents enjoy a low social status, and they lead a simple and desultory social life. These trailer parks are usually offered to senior citizens, veterans, and workers for low monthly rental fees and other minimal service fees such as garbage fees.

In the story, Victor, a young and poor American, needs to go to Phoenix, Arizona, to get the remains of his father. However, Victor was too poor to even travel to Phoenix. In this excerpt: “Victor did not have any money. Victor’s mother was just as poor as he was, and the rest of the family did not have any use for him at all. Thus he called the Tribal Council.”

In this short story, the dad of Victor had died alone and in an impoverished state. This is an excerpt: “He died of a heart attack in his trailer, and nobody found him for a week. It was really hot too.” The powerful symbolism of the trailer home of his dad and the fact of dying alone inside the trailer shows that his dad was very poor. First, the extreme heat has affected the physical setting of the trailer. Another implication is that his dad may not have been taking the necessary hypertension medicines since he had no money. It is common for older persons to take hypertension medicines as part of their daily maintenance to keep their blood pressure at low levels.

The response of the Tribal Council members to Victor was that of being less supportive of him due to the financial constraints that they were also facing as an organization. This excerpt proved this: “Now, Victor. You know we are having a difficult time financially.” They informed Victor that they could only help him based on their limited resources. This excerpt shows this: Now, Victor, we do have some money available for the proper return of the tribal member’s bodies. But I don’t think we have enough money to bring your father all the way back from Phoenix.” This excerpt features the final response and financial assistance that the Tribal Council extended to Victor: “Victor, we are very sorry for your loss and circumstances. But we can only afford to give you one hundred dollars.”

Victor sought help from his close friend in the community, another young man who is named Thomas Builds the Fire. Thomas Builds the Fire offered to lend him one hundred dollars so they can both go to Phoenix. But Thomas is also poor because he told Victor: “I’ve got some money saved up. It can both bring us down there, but you got to bring us back.” This statement means that Thomas Builds a Fire is also cash-strapped, but he sincerely wants to help Victor get his dad’s body back.

This particular short story also reveals that most of the young people in the community had a lower level of education, and they were unable to find good jobs that will give them financial stability. The first important point to emphasize in poverty alleviation policy is the crucial link of poverty to a lack of available and good-paying jobs. When African Americans are unable to have access to good jobs, the poverty rate immediately increases. Then in periods of high economic growth, the poverty rate decreases. During periods of high growth, such as in 2000, the lowest African American poverty rate was recorded at that time.

Therefore, the primordial priority in eliminating African American poverty must be the creation of new and stable, long-term job opportunities with good wages. A jobless economic recovery will still translate to high poverty rates. These new jobs can be gleaned from the energy, business process outsourcing, technical design and climate change sectors.

The second priority for the reduction of the poverty rate is to focus on progressive taxation to carry the economy forward and provide jobs. Most of the developed countries have passed crucial policies that ultimately translate to a stronger commitment to the reduction of poverty through meaningful taxation.

Specifically, if the US government had shown a stronger commitment to fighting poverty consistently and persistently, there should have been more encouraging social outcomes for the African American children in this generation.

The Pew Economic Mobility Project clearly showed that a large number of middle-class African American children grow up to be worse off economically compared to their parents. An important reason for this reduction in social mobility is due to the fact that the middle-class African American children are much more likely to grow up in local neighborhoods with high rates of poverty compared to the middle-class white children. Some research works revealed that childhood poverty further increases the likelihood that children will have negative economic outcomes as they reach adulthood.

Children who grow up in an impoverished home or in a poor neighbourhood are more likely to be poor as adults. If the American policymakers really want to reduce poverty in the long-term, they need address poverty from such early ages. The third point is that racial discrimination poses an objective obstacle to attaining a fair degree of economic success. Some paired-tester studies present the situation where African American and white job applicants show the same level of qualifications, yet the white applicant is much more likely to be offered the job. Among blacks with jobs, researchers consistently find wage disparities. For example, a 1993 Urban Institute study revealed that the African American workers earn 12 percent less than compared to the white workers who are into similar jobs.

The path to attaining better access to economic possibilities and opportunities for African Americans still remains on track. A firm political will and social resolve will open up better opportunities for this ethnic community. Plausible solutions that can help reduce the incidence of African American poverty include: (1) a strong job growth that reaches black communities, (2) a national commitment to lowering the poverty rate, and (3) a renewed commitment to fighting discrimination in the labor market. These three possible solutions will help transform the prevailing status of having a large black-white poverty gap into the future.

Works Cited

Gans, H. J. (1968). Culture and class in the study of poverty: An approach to anti-poverty research. In D. P Moynihan (Ed.), On understanding poverty. (pp. 201- 228). New York: Basic Books.

Gephart, M. A. (1997). “Neighborhoods and communities as contexts for development.” In J Brooks-Gunn, G J. Duncan, & J. L Aber (Eds.), Neighborhood poverty: Context and consequences for children. New York: Russell Sage.

Gutman, H. (1976). The Black family in slavery and freedom, 1750-1925. New York: Pantheon.

Hill, S. (1999). African American children: socialization and development in families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hirschl, Thomas and Mark Rank. (1999). “The Livelihood of Poverty Across the American Lifespan,” Social Work, 1, 4, 12-20.

James, J. (2008). “What Neighborhood Poverty Studies Can Learn from African American Studies, “ The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2, 4.

Massey, D. S. & Denton, N. A. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sherman. (1994). “This is what it Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona.” USA: Esquire.

Stevenson, H. C. (1998). “Raising safe villages: Cultural-ecological factors that influence the emotional adjustment of adolescents.” Journal of Black Psychology, 24, 44-59.

Trotter, J. (1993). “Blacks in the urban north.” In M. Katz (Ed). The “underclass” debate: Views from History. (pp. 55-81). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "The Impact of Poverty in African American Communities." February 23, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-impact-of-poverty-in-african-american-communities/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'The Impact of Poverty in African American Communities'. 23 February.

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