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Poverty in Black & White (and Latino and Asian)

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How upside down have our politics gotten? Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that those making more than $250,000 were "the people who were hit hardest by this recession."

The absurdity of that claim was highlighted that same day when the US Census Bureau released its new poverty numbers. While the big number everyone's talking about is that one in seven Americans is now below the poverty level, that doesn't tell the whole story. Not by a long shot.

If you look deeper at the data, the story of who has actually been "hit hardest" is clear:

  • More than one in four black and Hispanic people are below the poverty line
  • Hispanics saw the biggest jump in poverty (2.1%)
  • Biggest drop in real income was among black people and non-citizens (4.4% and 4.5% drop, respectively)
You can see charts of this on the PolicyLink blog, EquityBlog.

But this is not about numbers. It's about real people and real suffering.

The community-level consequences of this spike in poverty are stark and dire. Families are facing tight food budgets. Laid-off workers are losing their homes to foreclosure. Fragile community cohesion is fraying. And the vital infrastructure investments that were ignored during the Bush Administration remain bottled up in partisan politics - and millions of job-seekers suffer as a result.

We can see the pain and struggle in the faces of our neighbors, our family members, our children. But with white, college-educated people still facing non-crisis-level unemployment, it has been disturbingly easy for some politicians to ignore the deep and ongoing economic disaster in America.

If Sen. McConnell and his allies need more numbers to be convinced, how about these (click here for charts):

  • Since the recession began, the black unemployment rate has climbed 7.3 percentage points (9.0% in December 2007 to 16.3% today)
  • White unemployment has risen 4.5% and today sits below the pre-recession black unemployment rate (4.4% in December 2007 to 8.9% today)
  • Latino unemployment has nearly doubled during the recession (6.3% in December 2007 to 12.0% today)
  • While white and Latino unemployment has dropped or stabilized since May, black unemployment is actually on the rise (15.5% in May 2010 to 16.3% today)

What do we do about this? Thankfully, a clear path has already been blazed - if we can find the political will to simply walk down it.

The safety net investments made in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act are crucial. Unemployment benefits, temporary worker assistance, food stamps, and state aid all must be extended until this crisis is over.

But we must look beyond just our immediate crisis. We must make sure tomorrow's workforce is on steady footing. First, Congress must pass President Obama's $50 billion infrastructure proposal - a solid start to a decades-long solution. Also, Rep. George Miller's Local Jobs for America Act would stimulate local businesses and immediately put nearly one million Americans back to work. Passing that bill should be a no-brainer.

Tomorrow's workforce will also need more training than ever. This skills crisis means we may soon face a severe shortage of skilled workers to fill our new jobs building and maintaining infrastructure like electrical grips, transit systems, and bridges. Getting low-income black and Latino youth plugged into our community college system would go a long way to preparing for tomorrow. All our families need support to weather this recession.

The jobs crisis in America is deep - and it is deepest for those who were already in a hole to start with. This recession won't end until Congress gets serious about who is really "hit hardest."