A #1 Ranking We Should Be Ashamed Of
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pittsburgh Region has the highest rate of poverty among working-age African Americans of any of the 40 largest metropolitan regions in the country. More than 1/4 (28%) of the region’s African Americans aged 18-64 lived in poverty in 2008. That’s twice as high as in regions such as Baltimore and Charlotte.
If you think that African American poverty is just a City of Pittsburgh problem, you’re wrong; fewer than half (46%) of the poor African Americans in the region live in the City; 37% of them live in the rest of Allegheny County, and 17% live in other counties in the region. In fact, the highest rate of poverty among African Americans in the region isn’t in the City of Pittsburgh, it’s in Lawrence County, where almost half (49%) of the African American residents are poor.
Even more shocking is that the Pittsburgh Region is #1 in the country in the rate of poverty among African American children under age 5. Nearly 2/3 (62%) of these youngsters lived in poverty here in 2008, more than double the percentage in regions as diverse as Atlanta and Boston, and quadruple the poverty rate for white children under age 5 in the Pittsburgh Region (14.6%).
A key reason that so many African American children here are poor is that over 80% of African American women who have babies are unmarried (compared to only 26% of white mothers). This is the highest rate among any of the 40 largest metro regions. Families headed by unmarried women (regardless of race), particularly those with preschool children, are far more likely to be poor because of the difficulty of working or finishing school while raising a small child. In fact, the poverty rate for children under age 5 (of any race) living with single mothers is 10 times as high as for those living in two-parent families (61% vs. 6%). The fact that more than three times as many African American children as white children are born to single parents here is a major reason that they are four times as likely to be poor. The high rate of single parenthood is also likely one of the reasons why nearly 2/3 (64%) of poor African Americans in southwestern Pennsylvania are women, a higher proportion than in most regions.
Not surprisingly, a major cause of high rates of poverty is unemployment, and even before the recession started in the Pittsburgh Region, 38% of working-age African Americans were either unemployed or out of the labor force, the second highest rate among major regions (Detroit is #1). But even the African Americans who are employed are disproportionately working in lower-wage jobs; in the Pittsburgh Region, 20% of African Americans working in full time positions make less than $20,000 per year, compared to only 11% of whites.
These high rates of poverty, unemployment, and underemployment existed here in 2008, before the economic recession hit. It’s likely that they’re even worse now, and the slow recovery from the recession will make it particularly challenging to lower them.
What can you do to help change the Pittsburgh Region’s worst-in-the-nation status on this issue?
- Demand that your school district improve the skills of African American children. Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests show that only 38% of the African American 11th graders in the region can read proficiently, and only 28% are proficient in math. Is it any wonder that young African Americans have trouble finding good jobs? This is not just a City of Pittsburgh problem; more than half of the non-proficient African American students in the region are in school districts outside of the City of Pittsburgh. For example, in suburban districts like Penn Hills and Gateway (Monroeville), only one-third of African American high school students were proficient in reading and math in 2009.
- Support adequate, affordable public transit service to job centers. Census data show that over one-fourth (26%) of the African American workers in the Pittsburgh Region rely on public transportation to get to work. That’s the second highest proportion of any major region in the country (only New York is higher), and six times higher than the proportion of whites in our region who use public transit. Cutbacks in Port Authority transit service in Allegheny County and increased fares will likely have disproportionately negative impacts on the ability of African Americans to obtain and retain jobs.
- Contribute to United Way programs that help lift African Americans out of poverty. The United Way agencies in the region have innovative and aggressive programs to prevent youth violence, help single mothers, and assist unemployed workers, but they need contributions from every citizen in the community to adequately support these efforts.
(A version of this post appeared as the Regional Insights column in the Sunday, July 4, 2010 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)