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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