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Bad News on Good Census Numbers

Research & Commentary
October 04, 2016

by Karen Dolan

It’s tempting to celebrate new data on rising U.S. incomes, but our racial wage, wealth, and opportunity gaps leave a great deal yet to do.

Originally published by US News & World Report

Poverty is down, median income is up and health coverage expanded last year. These gains are felt across all racial, ethnic, gender and age groups in the U.S. The gender pay gap, income inequality, unemployment rates – all decreasing. Both the poor and those with middle incomes saw economic gains in 2015, according to new U.S. Census data. And the economy even added more than 2.6 million jobs last year.

screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-12-18-22-pmSounds like cause for celebration, doesn’t it? But don’t break out the bubbly just yet. Although these figures are heartening, especially after so many years of increasing hardship in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, the news appears much better than it really is.

Forty-three million people still live in poverty in the United States, including 14.5 million children. According to an analysis of the U.S. Census data, black women still take home just 63 cents compared to a white man’s dollar, and Latinas make a measly 54 cents per dollar.

In 2015, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, the gap in hourly wage pay between white and black workers widened to nearly 27 percent, the widest racial pay gap in 40 years. Further, the racial wealth gap is the highest it’s been in 30 years. Meanwhile, the richest Americans’ wealth has grown by an average of 736 percent. That’s 10 times the rate of wealth growth for the Latinos, and nearly 30 times the rate of growth for the black population, says a report by the Institute for Policy Studies. IPS’ analysis further finds that by the year 2043, that huge chasm in wealth between white people and black and Latino people will double if we don’t do something to change it. And to squeeze the last bit of helium out of that quickly deflating balloon celebrating new census data – median income for all but the richest 5 percent of Americans is still below pre-recession rates.

So the bad news is that it’s still the most privileged who are reaping the most gains. We are on track for the racial wealth gap to double if we don’t change course, the safety net is torn and under threat, conservative austerity proposals threaten gains, and systemic racism continues to disproportionately criminalize and impoverish black and brown families and communities. [pullquote]We are on track for the racial wealth gap to double if we don’t change course.[/pullquote]

But the good news is that we’re headed in the right direction. Under the Obama administration, the bloodletting following the financial collapse that occurred under the Bush administration has stopped. Further, the U.S. economy has created jobs instead of hemorrhaging them. Activists nationwide have raised the minimum wage in a number of states. The Affordable Care Act has insured millions more people. Critical safety net programs like housing vouchers, child care assistance for poor families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (or food stamps) have so far survived conservative block-granting schemes, and the poverty rate has finally begun to decline.

We still have a long way to go to get to where we were financially at the beginning of the 21st century, and much farther still to close the racial wage and wealth gaps – but the great news is that we have a chance to reach greater equity, blueprints for solutions and growing movements led by the most affected communities.

The Black Lives Matter movement and related racial and economic justice activism has not just been fighting for an end to police brutality and mass incarceration and the implementation of a $15 minimum wage. These movements are also raising awareness of the stories beneath the headlines and have solid policy proposals to transform the current state of economic, social, political and racial inequities. They’re calling for more progressive taxation, livable wages, protection for all workers, renegotiation of global trade agreements, reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans and financial support of black alternative institutions that will begin to close the racial wealth gap, among other initiatives.

The racial wage, wealth, and opportunity gaps are deep and historic. The Vision for Black Lives articulates ways forward and racial and worker justice movements are endorsing the platform and strengthening national, state, and local organizing efforts around it. The chasm won’t be narrowed overnight, and good numbers from the Census aren’t an excuse to stop working. But these gaps can, and will, eventually be closed if we follow the lead of those fighting for economic and social justice for everyone.

Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

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