After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination sparked riots across the U.S., President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned a report to examine the roots of unrest in black communities. The primary cause? “White racism” leading to discrimination in unemployment, education and housing, the report found.
Some 50 years later, despite milestones including the election of America’s first black president, the economic landscape has barely changed for black Americans, a new report released this week by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal, nonprofit Washington, D.C., think tank, found.
“In almost all areas, it is about the same, and in other areas there is actually lost ground,” said Valerie Wilson, director of the EPI’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy and an author of the study. “We have not seen nearly as much progress in economic outcomes as we might expect given the gains in other outcomes.”
At 7.5%, the unemployment rate among African-Americans in 2017 was more than twice the rate of white unemployment and 0.8 percentage points higher than it was in 1968. That finding runs counter to the positive narrative about black unemployment that President Donald Trump presented during his State of the Union address.
Here’s what else the EPI report found:
• Only 40% of black Americans own homes in the U.S., virtually unchanged since 1968 and a full 30 percentage points lower than the home-ownership rate among white Americans.
• The rate of incarceration for black Americans is more than six times that of white Americans today, and it tripled between 1968 and 2016.
• The hourly wage for black Americans rose 30.5% between 1968 and 2016, but as of 2016 black workers made only 82.5 cents for every dollar white Americans made.
• Meanwhile, household income for the average black family increased 42.8% since 1968, but remains only 61.6% of that of the typical white household.
• In 1968, more than one-third (34.7%) of black Americans lived in poverty, and today the share is just one in five (21.4%). Black Americans are still 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites.
Other reports came to similar conclusions
A study released Wednesday by the Center for the New Middle Class, which researches consumer behavior and the causes behind financial struggles of under-served Americans, found even African-Americans with prime credit scores (700 or above) face similar problems to those with low credit scores.
For example, compared to the general non-prime population, prime African Americans are 80% more likely to say they live paycheck to paycheck, 2.5x more likely to overdraft an account, and 28% less likely to have $1,200 for a financial emergency.
Despite the lack of progress in these departments, the standard of living and number of black children enrolled in elementary school has increased over the past 40 years, according to a 2016 study from the Urban League. There has also been substantial progress in high school degree attainment for African-Americans, the EPI study found: In 1968, only 54% of black Americans graduated high school while today 92% get a high school diploma.
Public schools are underfunded, college tuition has soared
Although there have been gains in education, many high schools are not setting African-American students up for success in college, John Taylor, chief executive officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a non-profit that promotes economic fairness for underserved communities said.
A rise in charter schools have left many public schools underfunded, he said. College tuition has also soared in the decades since 1968, making higher education less attainable for everyone. Between 2008 and 2017 alone, the cost of attending a four-year public college increased in nearly every state, in some cases by thousands of dollars.
“This study calls into question the rollback of support for public education has had on African-Americans and underserved people,” he said. “It is ridiculous we do not have a commitment nationally to educate our young people — that doesn’t bode well for our country as a whole.”
African-Americans were targeted with predatory loans
White families are also ahead in the housing market. African-Americans take out a far smaller share of mortgages than other racial groups. Although African-Americans make up 13% of the population, they got only 6% of mortgages in 2016.
What’s more, African-Americans are often given more expensive loans with less beneficial terms than other groups, according to a 2018 study from housing startup ABODO. Wilson said this played out particularly in the years preceding the 2008 housing crisis, when banks targeted minority communities with predatory loans.
Ultimately, African-Americans are continuing to play catch-up from 1968 and the decades of racism preceding it, Wilson said. Non-white Americans are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, have the most difficulty paying unexpected bills, and are “far less likely” than white Americans to have established financial tools like bank accounts and credit cards.
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