Half of black children in Oregon live in poverty, new census data show

The Oregonian
November 24, 2011By Nikole Hannah-Jones

One of every two black children in Oregon lives in poverty, among the highest rates in the nation, new U.S. Census Bureau data show.

An estimated 49.3 percent of the state's 20,000 black children were poor in 2010 -- the highest among all ethnic and racial groups -- compared with 19 percent of white children, according to the bureau's American Community Survey. That means half of the state's black children live on less than $430 a week for a family of four, under federal guidelines, less than half the state's $48,325 annual median family income.

"It's appalling, it's horrific, it's something where I don't know once people get the information how they are able to sleep at night," said Mary Li, Multnomah County community services director. "A child is going hungry, a child is cold. This is not simply an African American issue, this is a community issue that we all have to take on as if it were our child."

Other groups also suffer high poverty rates: About 35 percent of the state's Latino children live in poverty, as do 41 percent of children who are Native or another race other than Asian. Nationally, about 22 percent of children overall are poor.

Experts say the statistics represent the recession's impact on a community plagued by double-digit jobless rates for more than three decades, even when the state prospered. As the nation fell into recession and Oregon's jobless rate topped 10 percent, the rate for black residents unable to find work surged to more than 18 percent.

A decade ago, a third of the state's black children lived in poverty.

"It's just the kind of drumbeat of all the bad news we keep seeing on black unemployment and the foreclosure crisis that has disproportionately hit the black community," said Marcus Mundy of the Urban League of Portland. "It's alarming but certainly not surprising."

An Oregon Commission on Children and Families report this year called for the state to create a comprehensive strategy to reduce child poverty. "Unfortunately, this state has no plan and no one accountable for reducing poverty," said Charles Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center on Public Policy. "If you don't have a plan to reduce poverty, certainly in a state like this, it is easy to neglect certain groups who might have disproportionate poverty rates anyway."

Duke Shepard, a Kitzhaber policy adviser, said the governor is "acutely aware of the long-standing and systemic issues" and will release a plan in coming months with "very specific actions to address poverty."

"We know the state has not gotten it done historically for low-income children and children of color in particular," he said.

Li said the government hasn't done as much as it should because many Oregonians blame the poor for their poverty. But many poor people are working, she said. "And they are constantly having to make a billion choices that you or I would never want to make, like do you spend whatever you have left to pay some portion of the electric bill so you have lights and heat, or do you spend it on coats and boots so your kids don't have to wear sandals and hoodies in the cold?"

Almost 75 percent of poor children in Oregon have at least one working parent, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University.

African Americans still face systemic barriers in housing and employment, Li said, that have been exacerbated by the economy.

"The narrative is that somehow these are bad people, that they have a character flaw and made bad decisions so simply are reaping what they deserve," Li said. "We all make bad decisions, but our incomes isolate (most of) us from the bad decisions. People on low incomes have no buffer."

Karen Gibson, associate professor of urban studies at Portland State University, said children who grow up poor are more likely to drop out of school, spend time in prison, suffer poor health and have children who also live in poverty. Oregon's black community hasn't been a priority because it's small, she said.

"It has so little power," Gibson said. "In this progressive state, we're worried about owl habitats, but we won't include people to the same degree. There is so much lost potential in our children being poor, so much wasted talent."

In the heart of North Portland, the nonprofit Self Enhancement Inc. serves a student body that is 98 percent black and where more than 90 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Motivated by a Portland Public Schools graduation rate among black students of under 50 percent, SEI helps students and their families alter their circumstances. More than 95 percent of students who have participated in SEI's core programs have graduated from high school, and 85 percent have gone on to college. Executive Director Marcy Bradley said SEI shows how people can rise above their circumstances when investments in them are made.

"We've been fighting this fight for a long time," Bradley said. "Poverty exists, but I want for people to be clear that we also have real solutions. All it takes is a will and for the citizens to demand that's what we do."

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