We Need To Talk: Poverty, Race, and America’s Future

Posted by Evelyn Burnett, Nadia Owusu on
User Blog Posts Image 104

‘Poor’ has become a dirty word in America; and so has ‘Race’. A recent article in The Economist observed that the poor were rarely mentioned during the 2012 Presidential election, by either candidate. This despite the fact that, today, more Americans are poor than at any other time in the 53 years that the Census Bureau has published poverty figures. While this fact can partially be attributed to the Great Recession, much longer term trends are also at play. Indeed, the recession, and resulting increase in unemployment, made it shockingly clear just how unprepared many Americans are to face harsh new economic realities and meet the opportunities of the future. And, the most vulnerable--people—largely poor and of color—are falling even further behind. Despite all the progress we have made, income and race continue to play a role in people’s life trajectories and outcomes. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, a rich child is more than twice as likely as a poor child to end up in the middle class or above. And, black children from low-income families have bleaker prospects for making it to the middle class than white children from similar economic backgrounds. This issue is related to, and compounded by, the widening achievement gap that sees African Americans and Hispanics lagging dramatically behind their White and Asian counterparts in terms of attaining a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet, we are similarly reluctant to talk explicitly about race as a barrier to opportunity. Meanwhile, we are standing on the precipice of a demographic transformation that will result in a majority non-white population in as little as 30 years. With increasing evidence that high levels of inequality have negative effects on growth and other macroeconomic outcomes , it is clear that, in order to stabilize and secure our nation’s economic future, we must ensure that ALL of our citizens have the skills necessary to compete in an increasingly globalized, technology driven economy.


There is broad acknowledgement that addressing poverty and inequality at scale will require fundamentally new models of cross-sector collective problem solving. It is essential to bring together a diversity of leaders to define problems and goals; confront how they are contributing to systems failures; and change how their institutions work in order to produce better outcomes. This includes ensuring that the voices of the communities that are disproportionately affected by these issues are invited to the table – and heard. In short, we must engage in a very frank national conversation about the structural and systemic issues (including race) that contribute to multigenerational poverty.


There are numerous reasons for avoiding this conversation. After all, the “American Dream” holds that, through hard work, anyone can succeed—regardless of race, immigrant status, or economic background. Facing the inequity of that dream can be a tough pill to swallow. And, there has long been an unfortunate disconnect between the agendas of those focused on overall economic competitiveness and those focused on issues of equity. We need to bridge that divide with the understanding that, given current economic and demographic shifts, racial and economic inclusion must be part of the solution for setting our country back on the road to growth and prosperity. Here, the social sector can play a pivotal and catalytic role.


Much of the social sector is keenly aware of just how complex the relationships between race, income, and access to opportunity really are; as this is sadly a web that we have long been struggling to untangle. Now, with a growing number of partners, both public and private, joining our problem-solving network and being willing to work together in new ways, we have the opportunity to come to the type of shared understanding that can lead to more effective, viable solutions. Getting there will be hard, and will require all partners to challenge long-held assumptions and to disrupt the norm. Practitioners in the social sector must harness this moment to lead. With new partners, we must strive for clarity in our messages, and embed greater discipline into how we connect our activities and strategies to the broader vision for the country. In so doing, we can help private sector partners to better understand just how important economic and racial inclusion strategies are to our shared success. We are already seeing progress in this area, particularly around the growing body of work aimed at overcoming the very serious challenges facing black men.


Today, less than 50% of black male students graduate from high school on time. Black men are unemployed at a rate that is almost double the rate of white men, and they earn less than their white peers at every educational level. Add these grim statistics to extremely high levels of incarceration, and you have an enormous segment of the population that is largely being excluded from economic, social, educational, and political life. Organizations such as the Open Society Foundations, the Opportunity Agenda, Root Cause, ABFE, and PolicyLink are collaborating and working energetically to build a movement around reversing these deeply troubling trends. And, this weekend, in Houston, Texas, the Admiral Center, an initiative of Living Cities, will bring together a diverse group of thought leaders to talk candidly about this issue, and to potentially identify ways to engage in meaningful strategies that work. Hosted by NBA All-Stars Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, this ‘table’ will include private sector executives, philanthropic leaders, public sector innovators, community leaders and some of the world’s most recognizable faces.


We look forward to sharing ideas and insights from this work with you, and to contributing to the movement towards a more open national dialogue that does not shy away from words like ‘poor’ and ‘race’.