Forgotten America

By - Nov 1st, 2005 02:52 pm
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By Frizell Bailey

First in a Vital Source series examining therole of race in social disparity in America.

In his September 15th address from Jackson Square in New Orleans, President Bush spoke of the need to address the persistent poverty that was evident to the whole world in the days after Hurricane Katrina. He called for “bold action” that would ensure more black ownership of homes and businesses and increased job skills – actions not so much bold, really, as common sense.

Poverty and racial inequality are nothing new in New Orleans. So how is it that it took a catastrophe like Katrina for us to acknowledge them? Perhaps we were all seduced by the hospitality and charm of the city, served up like ladles of steaming gumbo. Or maybe it was the jell-o shot mindset of “laissez les bons temps rouler,” let the good times roll. More likely, though, we all just looked the other way. No one likes a buzz kill as harsh as extreme poverty.

This land is my land.There has been much talk about what to do with New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. It seems the overwhelming opinion is that it should be bull-dozed and not re-settled. After all, there’s no way to raise the land above sea level. People around the country and the world are even privately asking why people lived there in the first place. It’s never been a secret that the Ninth Ward is the most flood-prone neighborhood in the city. While letting the area return to the marsh land is probably a good idea, what people are forgetting in questioning the logic of building a community here in the first place is the original settlement patterns of the Ward and New Orleans as a whole.

From the beginning, blacks have taken up residence in the low lying, vulnerable areas of the city, due in large part to economic inequality and just plain bad timing. French colonists who originally settled there purposely chose the best land, meaning the high ground. This includes the Garden District and the French Quarter. It is no coincidence that these areas were not flooded.

When blacks were finally able to buy homes in the city in any kind of numbers, only low-lying land was available to them. Most of the “good” land had already been snatched up. Cost also played a part. Blacks could not afford what little higher ground that was still available, so they built communities adjacent to more affluent white neighborhoods to be near their service jobs.

Much of my own family lives in the New Orleans area. When I was a kid, some lived on the Westbank in the suburbs; some lived on the Eastbank in the projects and subsidized housing. On a visit to New Orleans as a teenager, I got my first look at the extreme poverty in the city. We had to pick up one of my cousins from his home in the projects near the Lower Ninth Ward. At that time, my family was on public assistance. My father lost his well-paying job as a welder during the recession of the 80s. We were, by all measures, poor. But seeing these projects made me rethink my own reality. After all, we lived in a three-bedroom home that my parents owned.

The buildings were dank and dilapidated. It seemed, to my young eyes, unfit for human habitation. There was anger; seething anger and resentment pouring from the tenement windows. I understood instantly why the murder rate was so high. It was one of the few moments in my life where I felt afraid for my safety. The desperation and despair were palpable.

Po’ boy: not just a sandwich.According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans has a poverty rate of 27.9 percent. But only 4.7 percent of whites live below the poverty line, compared with 31.3 percent of blacks. In fact, 100 percent of people who live in public housing in New Orleans are black, according to the Brookings Institute. And many of these projects are located in low-lying areas like the Ninth Ward.

Poor blacks in New Orleans also have difficulty accessing jobs. 34.8 percent of black households in the city do not have cars. And, like Milwaukee, the distance between where blacks live and where the jobs are has increased over the past 15 years. And one cannot overstate the historic role of racism and discrimination in the construction of poverty. It should come as no surprise that there were large numbers of poor blacks in New Orleans.

Not just New Orleans.The problem of poverty is not unique to New Orleans; the situation is similar in most every American metropolis of its size. And while the newly-revealed life conditions of one-third of New Orleans’ former population has government officials and other well-meaning citizens tut-tutting over the horror of it all, Milwaukee, too, has failed to address its poor black population. Here, as in New Orleans, they are a nameless, faceless mass tucked away and forgotten.

Milwaukee is widely held to be the most segregated city in the country, with many of its black residents living on the Northwest side of town. Even middle class blacks, who ostensibly have the means to live wherever they choose, reside in this area. Many just don’t find other areas, particularly the suburbs, very welcoming.

Thirty-two and a half percent of blacks in Milwaukee live in poverty. For black households with an annual income above $40,000, Milwaukee ranks 47th the nation. New Orleans is 48th.

Then there is W2, touted by many as the solution to poverty in Wisconsin. As it turns out, however, W2 has fallen far short of expectations. In a report released in March 2005 by the non-partisan state Legislative Audit Bureau, legislators found that the overwhelming majority number of former participants in the program remained in poverty. The average income of graduates of the program was a mere $8,300 in the first year after the program and just under $12,000 by year four. In late 1999, only 19 percent of former W-2 participants earned incomes above the federal poverty level of $15,670 a year for a family of three. By 2003, that number was only 27 percent.

So how do we deal with economic and social inequality?  Why is the face of poverty more often than not a black face? Access to educational opportunities, family sustaining jobs and affordable housing cannot be fully explained or understood without considering race. In the coming months, Vital Source will explore these questions. We will examine the role race plays and how it contributes to disparity. We will question the seeming failure of the educational system, employment programs and affordable housing initiatives to address the problem. We will also assess the role of the successes and failures of black leadership.  We invite your input along the way. Email with thoughts and suggestions. VS


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