Economic Deprivation Behind the Rage in Ferguson

08/20/2014 03:44 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2014
  • John Komlos Author, 'What Every Economics Student Needs to Know'

We know all too well the proximate causes of the rage in Ferguson but there are other much deeper socio-economic causes as well, namely the way the school systems, the economy, and particularly the labor market are structured so as to exclude cruelly so many from the American Dream. The system keeps education low, incomes minimal, and anxiety high for a substantial portion of the disadvantaged population in slums and near slums throughout the country. Gallup reports all the time that nationwide nearly half of the population lives financially insecure lives. At a time of deepening inequality we should not be surprised. We should remind ourselves that inequality is far from benign. It hurts and gnaws like cancer on the body politic.

There are two kinds of poverty: both are unjust and humiliating in a rich country. The first impinges on one's basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and medical care while the second deprives one of the American Dream enjoyed by the rest. The latter becomes particularly toxic as conspicuous consumption flaunted by Hollywood celebrities or the otherwise rich and famous reminds the disadvantaged of their miserable social status.

In know how it felt on my own (white) skin as I experienced poverty in a poor country as a child and it made absolutely no difference to me inasmuch I thought it was obviously perfectly normal to have nothing of consequence. My basic needs were met and no one around me had anything I didn't have. However, when my parents brought me to this country nearly six decades ago I suddenly felt deprived and basically uncomfortable. My status had changed suddenly from normal to underclass. The nature of relative deprivation is a very strange feeling. And that kind of poverty can be even more devastating than hunger or thirst, because it closes off opportunities; it stokes the flames of injustice; it burns from the inside. So my own experience leads me to look at the economic statistics behind the rage on the streets of Ferguson, MO.

The sordid picture that emerges from the Census is a painful microcosm of the deep fissures of a divided society along racial lines as at the national level. The Census found nearly 6,000 families living in Ferguson split roughly between one-third white and two-thirds black with 3 percent other (whom I'll leave out of the analysis below). At nearly $45K per annum, median family income in Ferguson is slightly below the national level ($51K). That just means that half of the people earn less than $45K and does not seem so bad compared to some neighborhoods in Harlem where the median is closer $17K.

However, the frustration begins when one examines this statistic along racial lines. White median income in Ferguson of nearly $70K is at a comfortable middle-class level while that of blacks is half as much -- with fully a quarter of the population living in or near poverty and fully two-thirds living below the median income. Similarly, those who are able to live with some comforts above the median income number three-fourths among the whites but merely a third among the blacks. It seems to me that this substantial discrepancy lies at the bottom of the humiliation that the black citizens of Ferguson had to endure since time immemorial.

Switching from family to individual earnings we note that that median black person working full time throughout the year (both male and female) earned $31K which would classify the median as a working poor person, but of course, half earned less than that. A dismal picture. Those who worked part time had a median income of merely $8K among women and $5K among men and that was for the whole year of 2012. Why, Tim Cook of Apple Inc. probably earns that in a couple of hours.

But there are even more poverty areas in contiguous neighborhoods (census tract number 2119) where the median family income is merely $21K, that is to say, half the population is at or below poverty level. In fact, St. Louis County has seven such concentrated neighborhoods of poverty at the census tract level. People living in such squalid slums can no longer dare to dream about the American Dream. Instead, the elusive Dream must feel oppressive, because it is so near on the TV screens and yet so very far away. But 6 miles south of Ferguson there are dozens of census tracts with median family income above $100K and one as high as $163K. They have reached the American Dream. But for the black people living in Ferguson the plush neighborhoods to the south are just irritants, reminders of the hopelessness of their own situation.

In brief, this is the economic geography of St. Louis County. I believe these contrasts can explain some of the anger that was unleashed by the hail of bullets that killed Michael Brown. Bullets kill instantaneously. Relative deprivation gnaws at the soul and suffocates slowly from within but is no less debilitating. The storm unleashed by the killing of the black teenager is indicative of the frustration and injustices simmering in the slums of St. Louis and is not very different from the fire storms unleashed by Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia. They are both based fundamentally on humiliation endured since time immemorial that the human soul can no longer endure. Let us pray that Michael's death will make us realize that we as a nation are on the wrong track so that we can break ourselves free from an ideology that excludes so many among us from good schools and decent jobs which alone can provide the basis of social peace and a dignified life. Nothing less will do.