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Poverty has been a disowned truth throughout history and a soiled part of the fabric of every society. (One could also argue that it has not been scorned, but deemed necessary by the ruling class in many countries.) Poverty has been studied ad nauseam, denounced universally, and officially accorded top priority by democratic societies, yet remains an enduring enigma, even for those genuinely concerned with eradicating it. Through it all, African Americans are the haunting “faces at the bottom of the well.”
In a recent U.S. Census report, between 2011 and 2012, poverty stayed the same nationally while the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) grew and the wealthy gained income. In 2013, poverty is substantially unchanged; at 15 percent, the poverty rates are almost the same as last year, but poverty in the African American community, at more than 27 percent, has not improved. Even in the face of this data, Congress has cut food programs by $40 billion, which eliminates between 2 and 4 million people from the program. Those who remain have more stringent work requirements, and with official unemployment exceeding 7 percent for the nation, where are the poor supposed to find employment? The congressional vote was extremely close with a margin of about ten votes separating those who decided to maintain food assistance and those who wanted to cut it. Julianne Malveaux, economist and President Emerita of Bennett College for Women, concludes, “ America really does not care about its poor people.” It’s hard to argue with her assessment.
A quick look at some national data concerning the African American consumer shows their buying power continues to increase but, for example, is only a relatively small percentage of Blacks spending with media focused on Black audiences. (Data on Black consumers must be disaggregated and take into full account poor Blacks’ limited access to employment opportunities and adequate resources.)
There are 43 million Blacks in the U.S. and 53% of the Black population is under the age of thirty-five; 54% of the adult Black population is female; 59% of Blacks live in the south; 71% own Smart phones and 37% watch more television than any other group.
The data for the Los Angeles area are similar to the nations’; poverty went up while the median household income remained statistically the same. The Census Bureau also found that Los Angeles area residents pay substantially more for homes and rent than the rest of the nation. About 34% are foreign- born compared to 15% nationwide and more three- and four-year-old children in the Los Angeles area are enrolled in pre-school than in the rest of the nation, but the area is behind when it comes to high school graduation rates.
A Census Bureau survey showed that in 2012, 17.6% of people in the Los Angeles area were in poverty, an increase from 17% in 2011. At the same time, 20.9% of the area’s population lacked health insurance coverage, a decrease from 21% in 2011. The median household income ($57,271) was statistically unchanged. (A sure bet is that African Americans income in the Los Angeles area was either unchanged or lower.) Blacks are at the bottom of virtually every economic and education indicator and this will not change unless and until there is sustainable, unified planning and action by Black leaders in step with their constituents.
A recent op-ed article, Rich Brain, Poor Brain, in the Los Angeles Times by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, suggests a novel contributor to the persistence of poverty, despite all efforts to reduce it: US. and British Columbia scholars explored the concept of “cognitive load.” The frontal cortex is the region of the brain that mediates such functions as decision-making, emotional regulation and long-term planning—“In others, it plays a key role in many of the things rich people tend to do better than poor people.”
Suffice it to say that this complex research shows poor people’s “frontal function is impaired because the cognitive load increased with other things such as more distracting tasks, stress, sleep deprivation and pain.” The study suggests that being poor means your brain has to work “mighty hard” if you’re constantly trying to figure out how to keep your head above water. In other words, “poor people have a greater cognitive load than rich people which leads to poor decision-making and counterproductive behavior.”
Unfortunately, this fanciful research tends to reinforce an erroneous myth that Black people themselves are the major cause for their disproportionate poverty rates. I would argue that such research tends to further victimize the victims by not referencing racism’s tentacles that uphold a system calculated to perpetuate poverty.
African Americans from slavery to the present have been kept disproportionately poor and disenfranchised by design, and the complex, daunting reasons for this still obtain in the 21st century. Black poverty will only be significantly reduced by sustainable efforts of an informed, unified and engaged Black community that holds its leadership especially accountable for meeting the needs of the poorest among us.