What’s Happening to Black Families?

Stephen Franklin

Paris Riley, Diamond Barthelemy, Jalinh Vasquez and China Barthelemy stand outside the FEMA trailer they were living in as of May 11, 2009 in Port Sulphur, La. Seven children from the family were living in the trailer nearly four years after their home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The new cen­sus fig­ures dumb­found me. What’s hap­pen­ing to black families?

Count­less news reports, based on the lat­est U.S. Cen­sus data, tell me that there’s a mas­sive black migra­tion underway.

They tell me that the black pop­u­la­tion in the South has swelled, as most­ly young and bet­ter edu­cat­ed blacks are leav­ing big cities in the North and the Heart­land for new and bet­ter chances. So, too, many more blacks are mov­ing out of the cities and to the sub­urbs, the news reports also say.

This sounds good, yes. So why am I baffled?

When I look at recent U.S. Labor Depart­ment num­bers, I see that one out of every four black fam­i­lies last year had no one employed — com­pared to one out of every 10 white fam­i­lies. And the sit­u­a­tion wors­ened for blacks in 2010.

Look­ing around Chica­go, where the black pop­u­la­tion has shrunk in the last decade, I won­der who left, and who’s left behind. Was it only the black mid­dle class? And where did they go?

In the last decade, pover­ty in Chica­go grew by 6.1 per­cent over­all. But there was a 30-per­cent growth in the 22 out of 29 black neigh­bor­hoods where there was an increase in poverty.

Con­sid­er the lat­est U.S. unem­ploy­ment fig­ures released on April 1. Black unem­ploy­ment con­tin­ued to grow while white job­less­ness declined, and the job­less rate for black teens was near­ly twice the rate for white teens. (All these fig­ures are avail­able here.)

So, here’s my problem.

If job­less­ness is as severe as ever nation­al­ly for blacks, and if pover­ty is climb­ing upward here in Chica­go and else­where, maybe some of this migra­tion is real­ly poor peo­ple rac­ing to find a bet­ter place down South or out in the burbs.

But poor peo­ple don’t pick up and start over so easy. If they are leav­ing the big cities, they are prob­a­bly head­ed for the first place they can afford. And that may not be much bet­ter than what they left behind.

And maybe the shift to the burbs is not the long-denied arrival of black fam­i­lies either in the vaunt­ed mid­dle-class sub­urbs. Maybe it is the arrival of mid­dle- and work­ing-class blacks, suf­fer­ing from hous­ing and oth­er finan­cial loss­es: strug­gling fam­i­lies who have pinched every­thing to afford old­er, low-val­ued homes in the near­est sub­urb across city lines.

After all, the major form of wealth for most black fam­i­lies is their house, and the hous­ing col­lapse has most cru­el­ly cut into the worth of hous­es in black com­mu­ni­ties. Sub-prime lenders tar­get­ed black com­mu­ni­ties, draw­ing in mid­dle-class blacks.

Doesn’t this mean that the con­cen­tra­tion of pover­ty in large cities like Chica­go is even greater than before?

And won’t car­ing for those left behind became more dif­fi­cult because there are few­er jobs, less job train­ing avail­able, and less mon­ey fil­ter­ing down from on high because local and state gov­ern­ments went broke?

That’s what baf­fles me. I look. I lis­ten and I see more heart­break, not less.

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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