New York; Jan. 19, 2004 – A new report says more than 35 years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., America has failed to make significant progress toward closing the economic gap between blacks and whites. In fact, in certain areas -- like infant mortality rates and unemployment -- the gap is increasing.
Although the information, taken mostly from the US Census and the Federal Reserve, has been publicly available for years, few reports have pulled all the disparate pieces together. "The State of the Dream 2004," released last week by United for a Fair Economy, challenges traditional notions about the success of the civil rights movement in the past 30 years. United for a Fair Economy is a nonprofit organization that focuses on highlighting income and other economic disparities in American society.
"These findings contradict the basic values of our country," said report co-author Betsy Leondar-Wright, who called the disparities "shocking and unacceptable."
Among the more disturbing findings: Unemployment among blacks is more than double that for whites, 10.8 percent versus 5.2 percent in 2003 -- a wider gap than in 1972. Black infant mortality is also greater today than in 1970. In 2001, the black infant mortality rate was 14 deaths per 1,000 live births, 146 percent higher than the white rate. The gap in infant mortality rates was 37 percent less in 1970.
Black Americans have also made little progress compared to whites in terms of income. According to the report, for every dollar of white income, African Americans had 55 cents in 1968. Thirty-three years later, in 2001, the gap had only closed by two cents. The report notes that, at this pace, it would take 581 years to achieve income parity.
The report notes that, at this pace, it would take 581 years to achieve income parity.
The racial breakdowns for family income are even bleaker. Median income for black families went from 60 percent of white family income in 1968, to 58 percent in 2002, the report said.
According to the report, the average black college graduate will earn $500,000 less in his or her lifetime than an average white college graduate. Black high school graduates working full-time from age 25 to 64, will earn $300,000 less on average.
Avis Jones-DeWeever, study director for poverty and welfare issues at the Institute for Womenâ€™s Policy Research, a private research organization that has studied the racial disparities of welfare reform, found the wealth disparities -- measured by net worth, including income and assets, minus debts -- even more troubling. "[Blacks] might not be cash poor, but they might be wealth poor," she said.
The report indicates that many black Americans are indeed "wealth poor." The average black family in 2001 had a net worth of just $19,000, including home equity, compared with $121,000 for whites. Blacks also had just 16 percent of the median wealth of whites, up from five percent in 1989. At this rate, it would take until 2099 to reach median wealth parity.
"Itâ€™s very discouraging," Jones-DeWeever said. "In the 1990s, there was an increase in the black middle class, but these families still are not secure. They donâ€™t have that wealth to serve as a Band-Aid in times of economic distress."
In related areas, like health, conditions for black Americans as a group continue to improve slowly, or not at all. In addition to the widening racial gap in infant mortality rates, the report said blacks have a nearly six-year gap in average life expectancy, having narrowed the gap only 1.81 years in the past three decades.
According to Amy Simmons, communications director for the National Association for Community Health Centers, Inc., a trade organization representing non-profit health centers, the health gap can in part be explained by the lack of quality, accessible medical care in minority communities. "Fewer babies die in a community with a community health center," she said. According to a 2003 study by George Washington University Medical Centersâ€™ School of Public Health and Health Services, states with the most health center users show "significant and positive reductions in minority health disparities." Other factors include lack of health insurance and support, especially for pregnant black women, Simmons said.
In a few areas, like education, black Americans have made greater progress. The dropout rate for black high school students has declined 44 percent since 1968, while the white dropout rate remains relatively steady. In 2002, 79 percent of blacks 25 and older had graduated from high school, compared to just 30 percent in 1968, the report said.
However, despite these gains, the statistics show that American society remains strongly racially divided in terms of economics, and that the impact of hundreds of years of black poverty, including slavery, remains powerful today.
"Although there was the rise of the middle class African American since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not many African Americans are included in that progress," said Leondar-Wright, who faults economic trends, tax policies and outright discrimination for sustaining the gap.
"Many government action[s] in the last 20 to 25 years have encouraged money to increase for the super-rich, for the top one percent," she said. "Meanwhile the bottom half has stagnated and fallen back. That has a racial dimension because the super-rich are overwhelmingly white and the poor are disproportionately people of color."
The changes in welfare policy, and racial bias in the distribution of welfare benefits, have also contributed to the economic gap, according to the National Urban League. A 2000 study by the Chicago Urban League and The Center for Urban Economic Development at the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago found that white welfare recipients in Illinois were more likely than black recipients to be referred to educational programs. About half of the white recipients surveyed were referred to these programs, compared with only 18 percent of black recipients.
A national survey released in 2001 by the Applied Research Center, a public policy and research institute, found that case workers disproportionately assigned minorities to workfare (a program in which participants get paid in benefits), instead of providing education or job training referrals. The National Urban League released a statement in 2001 that said such findings "seem to indicate pervasive bias in the distribution of welfare benefits."
Others find the cause of economic inequality further back in Americaâ€™s history. According to Jones-DeWeever, the "intergenerational transfer of wealth acquired under an unfair system," continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to economic equality. She argues that the impact of slavery, which allowed whites to accumulate wealth while blacks could not, remains today.
The lack of a long history of black wealth in America will take generations to overcome, Jones-DeWeever said. "Because of blood, sweat and hard work, a lot of the laws that led to this inequality have been torn down," she said. "But we have to get rid of this myth of everyone starting out on an equal footing. That myth will kill us as a nation."
The studyâ€™s authors argue that America cannot continue to make such slow progress. "We canâ€™t wait 1,664 years or 150 years for racial quality," Leondar-Wright said, referring to the time it would take to achieve parity of homeownership and poverty. "We need to pick up the pace. We need to take action."
In Dr. Kingâ€™s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here?, quoted in the report, he wrote, "When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was 60 percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is 50 percent of a person. Of the good things in life he has approximately one-half those of whites; of the bad he has twice that of whitesâ€¦Negroes have half the income of whitesâ€¦There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortalityâ€¦is double that of whites."
Based on the reportâ€™s findings, Dr. King could have written the same statement today.