Reflections on the poverty numbers

On Tuesday the Census bureau released staggering new numbers revealing the depth of poverty in the country. One in five American children now live under the poverty line. In the District, of course, the depths are much deeper. One in three of our children live in poverty. In 2010, about 121,000 people were at or below the poverty line in D.C., or 20% (one-in-five) of the population. The economic downturn has impacted us: Poverty in D.C. increased by 2 percentage points just between 2009 and 2010.

When this much anticipated news was released, our team was in a Race Matters training session. The training was facilitated by Joanna Shoffner Scott from Voices for America's Children and Paula Dressel from Just Partners, Inc. Unlike other sessions I've attended on race issues, which can feel cliche or "PC," awkward, contentious and even overtly hostile, the session was extremely enlightening, even if it was also uncomfortable at times. Joanna and Paula walked us through part of the Race Matters toolkit which showed us how to analyze social problems through a race-equity framework.

Race may be a social construct -- grounded in our perception and not human biology -- but that doesn't make it insignificant. When it comes to poverty, race does matter. Consider these facts from the latest Current Population Survey and our Census issue brief published in April:

  • Between 2008 and 2010, the poverty rate among black children in the District jumped from 41% to 47%. This rise was greater than the two-point increase for black children nationwide (36%).
  • Meanwhile, the overall child poverty rate in our city has risen, but at a lower rate, from 29% in 2008 to one-third in 2010.
  • So things are getting worse for black children at a far greater pacethan other children in D.C.

Of course, for blacks and Hispanics in America, there is a strong correlation between race/ethcity and where they live. These groups tend to cluster together in urban areas. (Our trainers noted that by contrast, poor whites are often geographically dispersed among more affluent neighbors, with the exception of Appalachia, where there is the highest concentration of poor whites.) In D.C., another way to look at child poverty is how it varies widely by ward.

  • 43% of all D.C. children living in poverty reside in Wards 7 and 8. These two wards are almost solidly black.

What do all these facts say about poverty in the District? Race does matter. More on the poverty numbers and the race-equity framework in future posts.

Percentage of Children Living Below the Federal Poverty Threshold, 2005-2009. (Census, American Community Survey, 2005-2009.)