Persistent poverty is part of the legacy of our nation’s history of racial injustice. Childhood poverty rates have risen nearly 40 percent for Black children since 2000, and Black students in the Deep South who overcome obstacles at home and at school to graduate high school still face grim job prospects in states that have not meaningfully addressed their history of inequality.
More than one out of every five school-age children in the United States – 10.9 million children – lived below the federal poverty line in 2013, according to the data released last week by the U.S. Department of Education. From 2000 to 2013, childhood poverty rose 39 percent for African Americans, compared to 13 percent for Asians and whites. And for the first time in 50 years, a majority of American public school students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches at school due to their families’ low incomes.
In the South, the recession sent poverty rates soaring higher than anywhere else in the country. The region has been slower to recover from the downturn as well, and young people have suffered disproportionately. In 2000, the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina had child poverty rates worse than the national average; today, they have the country’s worst rates of poverty for children ages 5 to 17, at 23 percent.
Yet the Deep South states have refused to adopt policies to help poor children and families: opting against expanding Medicaid, for example, and making some of the nation’s sharpest cuts in education spending.
Poverty in these states, where African American populations are highest in the country, disproportionately impacts Black children and families. In Mississippi, for example, Black children are three times more likely than whites to grow up poor, three times as likely to live with single parents, more than twice as likely to lack basic reading skills by fourth grade, and twice as likely to drop out.
In 24 of the 40 Mississippi districts to receive a D or F grade from the state, African Americans make up at least 95 percent of the student body. As the Washington Post reported last week, Ruleville Central High School is emblematic: the building has no air conditioning or heat; urine backs up in the piping and the smell wafts into the hallways; the clocks don’t work; and only 55 percent of students graduate on time, well below the state rate of 76 percent.
One of two nearly all-Black public schools in Sunflower County, which is 30 percent white, Ruleville’s graduating class had a single white student. White students attend North Sunflower Academy, a small private school where Confederate flags adorn the entrance. Nationwide, from 2002 to 2012, the number of white students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools fell from 28.6 million to 25.4 million, and their share of public school enrollment fell from 59 to 51 percent.
The refusal to remedy these inequalities has troubling implications for the future. In Mississippi, high school graduates who do not go to college have a 77 percent chance (compared with 67 percent nationally) that their children will grow up poor. Those odds have been on the rise since 2008, and they are the worst in the nation, with Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia following closely behind.