Over the last two decades, record numbers of African Americans have graduated from high school, enrolled in college and entered the highly competitive professional work world. Still, the real income of African-American families in 1993 hadn’t changed from 1969.
And while college-educated African-American women have come the furthest, two reports released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau show some things haven’t changed since Onethird of all African-American families still live in poverty, and African Americans earn less than their white counterparts in all jobs at all levels.
And while African-American incomes haven’t budged since 1969, if inflation is taken into account, incomes for white families have risen 9 percent over the period.
“This portrays the black population doing `all the right things’ - going to school, going to work, trying to fulfill the American dream - but not getting the same rewards,” said Dr. Margaret C. Simms, research director at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank specializing in African-American affairs.
The census reports, the most comprehensive on the African-American population in 20 years, show that African-American children are three times as likely as white children to live in poor families headed by a single parent. In 1993, 46 percent of all African-American children lived in poor families. Today, about 80 percent of poor African-American families are headed by a single parent.
The trend is all the more disturbing, researchers said, because they expect that by 2050, 1 in every 5 children will be African American.
“This information provides further evidence that we are in danger of becoming a society of haves and have-nots,” Commerce Secretary Ron Brown said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”
The reports, “The Black Population in the United States: March 1994 and 1993,” and “Characteristics of the Black Population: 1990,” are timed almost perfectly to challenge some of the assumptions surrounding two of the most contentious political debates in Washington: affirmative action and welfare reform.
The poverty results partly from the dramatic increase in the number of single-parent families. The proportion of African-American families headed by a woman rose from 28 percent in 1970 to 48 percent in 1994. The shift came at a time when most American families found they needed two workers just to be able to maintain a middleclass standard of living, researchers said.
But contrary to popular perception, about 62 percent of single parents were high school graduates and worked at least part-time in 1990.
“These reports put to rest a lot of myths out there,” said report author Dr. Claudette E. Bennett, a Census Bureau statistician. “There is a perception that in single-parent female households, they are not working. They are working. But they’re still not getting out of poverty.”
Cutting welfare payments and putting people to work is the centerpiece of most welfare-reform proposals being debated in Congress.
Further, the report shows that the “explosion” in births to unwed teenage mothers has resulted mainly from the increase among white teenagers.
For the last 20 years, there have been about 80 babies for every 1,000 unmarried African-American teenagers. At the same time, the rate for white teen-agers grew from 8 babies per 1,000 unwed teenagers in 1970 to 20 babies in 1990.
The debate over affirmative action programs may become a defining political issue in the 1996 presidential campaigns. Many Republican presidential hopefuls have promised to overturn programs that they say have unfairly disadvantaged white workers by giving preference to African Americans.
The report authors say their data should dispel that idea.
African-American earnings still do not match white earnings. In 1993, African-American men earned 72 cents for every $1 earned by white men, up about a dime from 1969. And the income gap between young African-American and white men who are recent college graduates is widening, after reaching near parity in 1980, according to the Census Bureau’s Dr. Roderick Harrison, chief of the racial statistics branch.
The greatest income gains have been made by college-educated African-American women, who earn about 95 cents for every $1 earned by white college-educated women. Both groups of women earn far less than white men.
“Perhaps we have relied too much on increased education as a panacea for all sorts of social problems,” Harrison said. “Certainly, we’re better off, but just how much better off?”
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