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To Stop Dreaming Would Be Folly: Inequality in America 50 Years Since MLK Jr.

08/25/2013 11:20 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2013
  • Rana B. Khoury PhD Student, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University

This week we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that true equality included civil rights but also economic justice. In fact, his later writings and speeches on economic inequality and the free market are conveniently ignored by our media and education systems. He dreamt about America, after all, and criticisms of capitalism do not coincide well with the American Dream. But poverty and inequality remain the greatest demarcations of race in America today. In that vain, I am offering a snapshot of two black youths in Cleveland who embody the challenges facing blacks and lower income Americans off all colors.

To stop dreaming would be folly.

I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. East side, mostly, East Cleveland. Moved around a lot, at least about probably three or four years apart at a time. Maybe [because of] the areas, the foundation, the people... pretty much try to find somewhere decent where you can relax, have no problems.

I rap for real, but I just haven't made it a big thing. But I rap. Right now I'm workin' at the Marriott. They put me on different positions. I might do housekeeping, laundry, dishes. I'm like a fill-in. Been there 'bout four, five months. Before, I actually wasn't doing nothin', really. I was just chilling, for real. I was just trying to go to school, but it wasn't workin' out for me. Actually, I didn't even make it to high school, I stopped going in like tenth grade. I stopped. I was a kid, I didn't know better, didn't know how big stuff is, how important it is to have. If I could change it I would.

My father was around, I knew where he was and all, he visited, I seen him. But it was mostly my mom, I lived with my mom most of the time. It was just me, her, and two younger sisters. We all got different daddys.

I was young, so when I started workin', it wasn't really that bad. Now I'm getting' older, it's changing. It's weird, it's like, I never really had a good run on my own. My mom, she did the best she could. On her end, she kept a roof over our head, kept clothes on our backs. You know, she's dean's list, she's a paralegal. She graduated high school even when she was pregnant with me, so she never stopped. She went got her degree for paralegal. I think it's a bachelor's. She caught up, I don't know how. She's been comin' along. I just haven't.

There's a lot of people around me, I'd say 35 percent out of a 100, don't have jobs, I would say. Actually, more than that, maybe 65 or 70 percent don't have jobs. It could be better. It could definitely be better.

I get assistance; I get food stamps, once a month. It would be nice to get married, to have a real family and stuff, I would like that. Probably, it's probably crazy, for real, I'd say I make between seven hundred and a thousand a month. I live with my mom. My sisters doing good too, I'm the only one tryin' to get it back together. They both got their own spots. They both have kids. They have a boy-a-piece. No, they're not married. But their baby-daddys watch the kids. It's a little ghetto, I guess [laughs]. - JORGIO, 26, CLEVELAND

While speaking to Jorgio, my thoughts were with his mother. She had three children from as many men, but it seemed she was trying to make a decent present out of a challenging past. By pursuing her education and career while moving the family repeatedly to safer neighborhoods, she was seeking to extricate herself from a context of poverty, both physically and structurally. Personally, she "caught up," in Jorgio's words.

Jorgio has not caught up, and it is doubtful that he ever will. Instead, he has let himself slide into a cycle of poverty that will grasp onto him -- young, black, male -- and probably never lose its hold.

He was born into it. But Jorgio sealed the cycle the day he dropped out of high school. Of young blacks his age, 14 percent dropped out of high school when they were teenagers; just 7 percent of whites did the same.[1] From then his trajectory was directed downward. He spent the subsequent years floating from menial part-time stints to no work at all -- aside from making rap music, that is. In those same years, employment of blacks in Jorgio's age cohort and without a high school diploma was only 40 percent, compared to 70 percent employment of people at all education attainment levels in his age group. When those young blacks without a high school diploma are working, they are employed for short periods of time, just 43 percent of weeks in the year; even white dropouts are working 61 percent of weeks. In contrast, when young blacks receive a bachelor's degree or more, they are employed almost as much as their white counterparts.[2] As Jorgio's age cohort grows up, those with less education will fare poorly; the blacks among them will fare worse.

To wish that Jorgio did not exemplify so many of his peers would risk spurning the truth. The poverty cycle is real: Jorgio's blackness contributes to his poverty, which can be alleviated if he gets educated enough, which is difficult to do because of his poverty, which is exacerbated by his blackness. Still, let us not forget that for all the above statistics are the corresponding numbers that round out the 100 percent. Arianna is one of them.

Arianna is black, in her mid-twenties, and from the same depressed parts of Cleveland as Jorgio. Arianna's parents have been together all her life, but her sister is a single mother. As for her own relationship status: "My school and work is my relationship." And so the paths taken by Arianna and Jorgio diverged.

Arianna is a full-time student at Cleveland State University, studying public relations. She also has a full-time job as a bank teller. As though two full-time commitments were not enough, she does event planning on the side for the community. Rather than exhaustion or resentment, Arianna's voice emits enthusiasm as she explains this to me. "I work during the day and at night I'm at school. I love it though. I have been doing that for three years. I'm loving it." Once she completes her bachelor's degree, Arianna wants to stop working at the bank and formally start her own event planning company. Not only that, but "I'm going to get my master's degree when I'm done. I'm not stopping!"

If she does go on to pursue a graduate degree, Arianna concedes, she will "probably be in debt for the rest of [her] life." Her extraordinary debt -- likely amounting to fifty or sixty thousand dollars -- will place Arianna among the most ordinary students in our country. Of the twenty million Americans who attend college, 60 percent, about twelve million, borrow to cover the costs.[3] Student debt is now the second largest source of consumer debt in America, just behind mortgages; it is the only pool of consumer debt to grow since 2008.[4] Indeed, it has grown to monstrous proportions. From 2004 to 2012, student debt grew from just over $250 billion to nearly $1 trillion. About 37 million borrowers owe that $1 trillion today.[5]

I spoke to many folks, middle age and older, who paid for their education by way of a part-time job and some family assistance. Yet for most young Americans seeking higher education today, paying out of pocket is just no longer possible. The average tuition at a public four-year college in 1980 was about $2,100; by 2010, tuition had more than tripled to $7,600. Private tuition soared up from $9,500 to $27,300 in the same period. In part, declines in government funding account for the rise in tuition rates -- colleges have acclimated by passing the loss to students. In 1985, colleges relied on tuition for 23 percent of their operating expenses; in 2010 that figure was 40 percent.[6] Hence debt.

Huge amounts of debt taken on by people who have yet to establish their financial security (a characteristic quite inherent to students) are risky. Indeed, two out of five student loan borrowers are delinquent "at some point in the first five years after entering repayment."[7] Over five million borrowers have at least one past due student loan account, and only 37 percent of federal borrowers could make timely payments without postponing payments or becoming delinquent from 2004 to 2009. Some economists speculate that college debt will be the next "bubble" to burst and damage the economy. Whether or not that happens, the expanding debt bubble is smothering young adults.

When more debt combines with an economic slump, young people struggle to move toward the markers of adulthood (that also require borrowing), such as buying a home and starting a family. Whereas first-time homebuyers typically account for 40 percent of total buyers during the last decade, in 2011 and 2012 that figure declined by almost ten points. The student debt factor combines with other trends that disadvantage these deterred home buyers: the difficulty of securing mortgage financing in the wake of the housing crisis, and the purchases of lower-priced properties by investors -- often paying with cash -- crowding first-time homebuyers out of the market.[8] Indeed, during the slump almost half of young people delayed purchasing a home.[9]

Arianna is not considering buying a home yet, but she would like at least to rent her own place. Once she is done with school, she is thinking about moving down to Columbus, where the rent is cheaper. Plus, with her event planning skills in tow, it would be a chance to "help out another city." Apparently, Arianna feels indebted in more ways than one.

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics, "America's Youth at 25," U.S. Department of Labor, 1 March 2013. This long-duration survey served perfectly Jorgio's case. It was released after 14 annual rounds of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth of 9,000 young Americans born from 1980-1984. The end data represents their experiences from ages 18 to 25.

[2] Blacks ages 18 to 25 with at least a bachelor's degree are employed 79 percent of weeks; whites at the same educational level are employed 83 percent of weeks. Ibid.

[3] Chronicle of Higher Education.

[4] Federal Reserve Board of New York.

[5] Federal Reserve Board of New York.

[6] "Average Tuition & Fees, by Institution Type, 1980-81 to 2010-11." Demos. Link here. Figures derived from The College Board.

[7] Institute for Higher Education Policy. The figure is 41 percent.

[8] National Association of Realtors. Link here.

[9] Demos/Young Invincibles. "The State of Young America: Economic Barriers to the American Dream." The figure is 46 percent. P. 10.