Editorial: Poverty and race in Iowa


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Racial inequality has plagued the United States since before it won independence from the British Empire in the late 18th century. To this day, although substantially less potent than it once was, the racial disparity is still with us.

Released last week, the American Community Survey’s 2012 results are startling, especially for African Americans and Native Americans. Nationally, both groups are nearly three times as likely as whites to live in poverty, while Latinos are about 2.3 times more likely to live in poverty than whites.

Looking at the degree of racial inequality in Iowa is like looking at the national levels on steroids for blacks and Native Americans.

In Iowa, blacks are about 3.5 times more likely, Native Americans are 4.2 times more likely, and Latinos are about 2.4 times more likely than whites to live in poverty.

Median incomes follow a similar trend between the United States and Iowa.

Nationally, whites tend to earn about 70 percent more than blacks, 60 percent more than Native Americans, but in Iowa, whites generally earn 90 percent more than blacks and 150 percent more than Native Americans. Both nationally and in Iowa, whites typically earn 40 percent more than Latinos.

Income inequality is one thing, but when poverty and income so strongly adhere to racial lines, something is wrong. This is a national problem, but the even greater level of inequality in Iowa highlights the need for action from state and local governments to help decrease the racial income gap.

Poverty tends to become concentrated, and because the correlation between race and income is so strong, city neighborhoods usually fill up with poor minorities while whites flee to the suburbs.

Because school districts rely on property taxes for most of their revenue, concentrated poverty inevitably limits schools’ access to resources and puts more stress on students and their families.

That hurts students’ abilities to perform well, making it harder to graduate from high school or go to college and eroding their potential income. This creates a feedback loop that continues to reinforce neighborhood poverty.

The crime, violence, and other stressors that often follow in the wake of high poverty concentrations further entrench poverty in neighborhoods both by creating fear and stigmatizing the area, scaring away wealthier residents. This creates a “poverty trap,” according to a study by Harvard Professor Rick J. Sampson. Naturally, these areas can be hard to escape and without government intervention, will probably persist, Sampson writes.

One popular solution is improving access to school choice and implementing charter schools. Poor minority students can then attend higher quality schools, often in the suburbs, or local schools can adopt unorthodox measures and see better outcomes, raising students’ income as adults. In reality, charter schools usually become more segregated than ordinary public schools, and empirical evidence strongly favors integrated schools, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.

The report explained that simply busing students around doesn’t usually work because higher performing schools in the suburbs refuse to participate or limit how many students they’ll accept. In order to successfully desegregate school districts, neighborhoods themselves must be desegregated. This for example could involve cheap public housing scattered throughout suburbia, making it easier for poor minorities to leave their old neighborhoods.

Regardless of the solution, governmental action is necessary to improve the livelihoods of millions who are at a huge disadvantage because of something as trivial as their skin color.

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