Sunday, July 04, 2010

A #1 Ranking We Should Be Ashamed Of

The Pittsburgh Region has received many accolades over the past year for its high quality of life and the resilience of its economy. But our community is also #1 in the nation on an issue that should be a source of shame, not pride.

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.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we should return the power within the schools back to the teachers in order to resolve the issue. The kids today do not respect the educational instituation and the parents do not support the schools for enforcing basic rules of conduct the students need to survive in soceity, The kids that want to learn are in an enviroment that does not promote learning but a welfare state. The article listed Penn Hills and that was one of the finest schools in the area but not anymore. Why? The basic rules are not bieng followed by the students but more importantly the parents.

Want to blame someone or something on why Pittsburgh is ranked so high in this area? Each parent needs to look in the mirror and think what they have done for thier child. No society, the school, but you yourself teaching respcet for yourself and others.

The change needed starts with you, then your community, then the schools and it will grow from there.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's precisely because of the disproportionate number of African Americans and other vulnerable groups in the Pittsburgh area that people who are in positions to influence public policy should be outraged that the state's elected public officials continue to promote gambling, and especially casino gambling as a way to generate new revenue to help improve public school education, among other services. Casino gambling is not a harmless form of entertainment as our elected officials want us to believe. And among the people most harmed are poor black people. A recent study in South Florida showed that African American women had the highest rate of gambling addictions in the state. And guess who suffers as a result? Their children. I wonder what a similar study in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas would show? This is not to say that gambling is responsible for the levels of poverty that you've shown here, but it certainly doesn't help.

Sandra Adell, Author: CONFESSIONS OF A SLOT MACHINE QUEEN: A MEMOIR. See also "A Black Woman's Reflections on Casino Gambling" (

7:45 PM  
Blogger john said...


Of all the peices you have written (and there have been some really good ones), in my opinion this piece of inequality is the best and perhaps the most important. Not only do you raise the issue, you also provide startling facts, reasons, and suggested action steps.

Well done!

9:23 AM  
Blogger Dean Jackson said...

I'm kind of curious at rates of income vs cost of living; I used to live in Washington, DC and visit Baltimore frequently, and the cost of living was far higher, especially in the urban ghettos there with no access to grocery stores. In the graph you've posted, the cost of living (roughly!) goes from cheap (left) to very expensive (right).

I don't think it's as simple as "demanding" the school district improve their skills. We're still a pretty highly segregated city, from education to hiring to neighborhood living.

We need better job opportunities for the skills the current poor black work force has. We need better education - and motivation to chase that education - for the next generation. And we need better integration between the black and white halves of the city.

How to do that? I don't know.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Calvin K. Clinton, Sr. said...

I wish the economic inequalities between African-Americans and whites in Pittsburgh were as simple as excessive gambling or lack of educational attainment. Although these are factors and symptoms of a larger problem in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, the real problem is a deep unrelenting culture of social and institutional racism. As for education, many of the brightest African-Americans leave for other cities with lower levels of racial discrimination in employment. The “token” few who are able to gain entry into white Pittsburgh corporate America, are just that, tokens in numbers to those qualified. Your report is one of many over the years that have pointed out the grim realities of being African-American in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. The first reports came from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work called the Economic Benchmarks Report in the early 90’s. After a series of ever increasing statistically grim reports, our union pressed the then Mayor Tom Murphy and City Council to conduct a Dispairity Study to address some of the issues that lead to the poverty and inequality you now write about. I was a Commissioner on the Disparity Implementation Study Commission or DISC. After years of working out a Supreme Court proof study for the City of Pittsburgh and most of its Authorities, they tabled it rather than implement its recommendations. In the game of life it was, Pittsburgh racism, one more and equality nothing. Prior to that study, the Pittsburgh School District did a similar type study, it was shelved too. What is happening to African-Americans in this city is by conscious and unconscious design and will not change until African-Americans and white people of goodwill are determined to change it. P.S. Did you notice that as important your article was for a large percentage of our populace, it wasn’t on the front page but relegated to the Business Section. Pittsburgh racism, one more, equality nothing, and the status quo goes on.
Calvin K. Clinton, Sr.
African American Workers Union

10:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

perhaps this disparaging data could be improved by understanding earlier demographics in pittsburgh. prior to the 60s, the hill district/wylie ave was a booming african american neighborhood. where has that prosperity moved? why didnt it return? a few years ago, i was surprised to read an 8 page article in the city paper where african american students were allowed into honors programs in the woodland hills school district even though their entrance scores were lower than their counterparts? i seem to recall the enraged residents of churchill and edgewood who had to "foot the bill" for rankin residents feww education...lets for once consider the source?

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Kenneth E. Chapman said...

Mr.Clinton your statement, I believe is right on point. Please contact me at

4:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an "outsider" non native of Pittsburgh, my years spent here in Pittsburgh have been a personal education on institutional racism deeply rooted in Pittsburgh history. As a graduate student I struggled with much of what is discussed in this article, but found disturbing the discussion of Black women having children out of wedlock as a problem of poverty in Pittsburgh. It is a challenge certainly, but I sincerely doubt THE ONE warranting the discussion it received over other way more damaging issues. The author opened important topics in that examination, but the blatant sexism really overtook everything. I would venture to say that there's more going on here than young Black women having children before marriage. Just to be thorough, no mentions of young Black male sexual or social behavior, certainly a contributing factor in a narrow analysis like this. Just saying the examination seriously needs to open up to other factors that are being ignored big time! I strongly would encourage a deeper inquiry that looks at the social, economic and even cultural conditions of Black folks in Pittsburgh. Often it seems folks aren't really even aware of the demographics of Pittsburgh, about 8% Black even less Latino and Asian, and of course predominantly White. Which does more damage the lack of knowledge, clear diversity challenges, or teen pregnancy? I've actually been doing quite a bit of research about the habits of Black scholars to pathologize Black folks' behavior rather than look at root causes of it. The 21st century really demands more advanced thinking as much more than teen pregnancy has surfaced in the last 20-30 years.

1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Want to look at the problem, look at the hiring practices of Pittsburgh's major corporations ,Heinz and FedEx Ground I worked as a temp. worker in these companies. And you can count on one hand African American employment and 3 out of the 5 workers are temporary.

2:38 PM  

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