Persistent poverty

March 26, 1993

Though the poverty gap between blacks and whites in Maryland narrowed significantly during the 1980s, the latest Census report shows blacks are still three times more likely to live in poverty than whites. The persistent economic gap between blacks and whites appears to be an intractable problem, affecting debate on issues from school funding and health care to welfare dependency, drug abuse and crime.

No single factor is responsible for the gap. The loss of low-skill manufacturing jobs from urban areas, the increase in single-parent households over the last generation and the continuing legacy of racial discrimination all have contributed to the present crisis.

Similarly there probably is no single "magic bullet" likely to provide a definitive solution to these problems.

In "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass," sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton argue that housing segregation actually causes poverty by making it nearly impossible for aspiring black families to escape the concentrated poverty of the ghetto and putting them at a real disadvantage in the competition for education, jobs, wealth and power. As poverty rises in segregated neighborhoods, the authors argue, joblessness, school failure and teen-age parenthood increase, creating even more poverty.

It is tempting to interpret the gap in black and white poverty rates as a result of such mechanisms, though the authors don't explain why working- and middle-class black neighborhoods, which are also highly segregated, don't show the same degree of social distress as poor ones. It can even be argued that the very success of integration, which allowed working- and middle-class blacks to escape the worst areas, accelerated the decline of poor neighborhoods by stripping them of stable families and successful role models.

In recent years, conservatives have argued that the main causes of inner-city poverty are cultural, a result of liberal social programs that rob the poor of initiative and incentives to climb out of poverty. This is a variant of the dubious "blame the victim" approach that views poverty as a consequence of the moral failings of the poor. Yet it still exerts a powerful influence on much social policy making.

Despite these problems, the racial poverty gap has narrowed; the social safety net, though imperfect, generally performs as intended; integration, though incomplete, has created opportunities in employment, education and housing to a greater extent than in any previous era in the nation's history.

Progress is being made, albeit too slowly.

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