Below Soaring CEOs, Struggling Black and Latino Youths

Stephen Franklin

We hear much nowa­days about the rich, and how ris­ing inequal­i­ty is a result of just how wealthy they have become late­ly. We mull over grow­ing heaps of data that show us how the moun­tain­tops, where the nation’s rich live, have grown so much more dis­tant from the val­leys where work­ers reside.

Data that mea­sures the stun­ning leap in CEO pay, as not­ed by Isabel Sawhill in a recent arti­cle for the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion. Where cor­po­rate execs once earned 30 times as much as the aver­age work­er, that fig­ure has jumped to 300 today, she noted.

But down in the val­ley, there’s a trou­bling real­i­ty that deserves as much atten­tion at the eco­nom­ic take­off of the rich. It’s the eco­nom­ic plight of poor black and Lati­no youths, an eco­nom­ic mis­for­tune that threat­ens to mark gen­er­a­tions to come. Con­sid­er: Between 1985 and 2000, two-thirds of all black chil­dren were raised in neigh­bor­hoods with at least a 20-per­cent pover­ty rate. For white youths, in com­par­i­son, the rate was 6 per­cent, accord­ing to a 2009 study by Patrick Sharkey. With the num­bers steadi­ly increas­ing across the last decade, 38 per­cent of black youths were stuck in pover­ty in 2010, accord­ing to U.S. gov­ern­ment fig­ures. That’s up 8 per­cent from a low in 2001.

But the toll of a col­lapsed econ­o­my has been espe­cial­ly hard on Lati­no youths. In 2010, Lati­no youths faced a pover­ty rate just under that of black youths, 37.3 per­cent, accord­ing to fig­ures from the Pew Research Center.

And if neg­a­tive eco­nom­ic forces per­sist for Lati­nos, the rate of pover­ty among Lati­no youths will like­ly soon sur­pass that of black youths.

Between 2007 and 2010, the num­ber of Lati­no youths in pover­ty swelled by an added 1.6 mil­lion youths for a 36.7 per­cent increase, accord­ing to the Pew report. In com­par­i­son, the report not­ed that the rate climbed 17.6 per­cent for white youths and 11.7 per­cent for black youths. As a result, Lati­nos account for the largest num­ber of youth in pover­ty today.

So what? you ask. These num­bers are dis­mal, but so is the econ­o­my. And on top of that, these young­sters have plen­ty of time to catch up and get on their feet, right?

Nope. That’s not what’s been tak­ing place lately.

More than ever, we have begun to real­ize that the num­bers of minor­i­ty chil­dren born in pover­ty face obsta­cles so large that they can­not escape the eco­nom­ic restraints that hold them back.

But we also have evi­dence that pro­grams focus­ing on poor youths bol­ster their edu­ca­tion and pro­vide strong incen­tives to suc­ceed. They have paid off.

The prob­lem is, we are killing these pro­grams. We are lay­ing off teach­ers and social work­ers who make a dif­fer­ence with these youths. The mes­sage from Wash­ing­ton to the state cap­i­tals to city halls is that it’s fool­ish in these dire eco­nom­ic times to dream of ambi­tious efforts to over­come poverty.

And that’s the prob­lem with focus­ing too much on the run­away rich. Yes, it’s a prob­lem — but the prob­lem with chil­dren locked in pover­ty today is that it will cause heart­break for many years to come.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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