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The State of Black America: Progress Made, But Far To Go

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It’s hard to imagine a more relevant moment for the National Urban League to release its State of Black America 2013 report. This year, after all, marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation — two historical events of enormous importance to African Americans. It seems even more appropriate that the Urban League’s report is released on the same day that President Obama — our first African-American president, recently re-elected to a second term  — presents his annual budget to Congress.

Could there be a more appropriate moment to assess how far we’ve come, how far we’ve yet to go, and what kind of leadership is needed to move us forward?

The subtitle of the report, “50 Years of {Uneven} Progress,” acknowledges the undeniable progress since the 1963 March, and the remaining disparities that have worsened as a result of the financial crash, and the ensuing economic crisis and jobs deficit.

The impact of civil rights measures passed during the Civil Rights Movement, and the affirmative action programs policies that followed, is seen in the gains African Americans have made in education.

  • More African Americans complete high school. Only 15 percent of African-American adults today lack a high school education, compared with 75 percent of adults 50 years ago. This represents a 57 percent closure of the high school completion gap in 50 years.
  • More African-Americans attend college. There are now 3.5 times more African-Americans aged 18-24 enrolled in college than were 50 years ago.
  • More African-Americans hold college degrees. For every college graduate in 1963 there are now five.

Gains in education are tied to an increase in standards of living

  • Fewer African-Americans live in poverty. Since 1963, the number of African-Americans living in poverty has declined 23 percent.
  • Fewer African-American children live in poverty. The percentage of African-American children living in poverty has dropped 22 points in 50 years.
  • More African Americans are homeowners. Since 1963 the percentage of African-Americans who own their homes has increased 14 points.

Those numbers tell the story of how far we’ve come. Yet they don’t quite tell the story of where we are. First, they must be understood in the context of more data.

  • The unemployment gap persists. The unemployment gap has only closed 6 percent since 1963, and the unemployment rate for African-Americans remains twice that of whites — regardless of education, gender, region of the country, or income level.
  • The income gap persists. In 50 years, the income gap between African-Americans and whites has closed just 7 percent.
  • The wealth gap is growing. Net wealth for African-American families dropped 27.1 percent during the recession.
  • Disproportionate poverty persists. African-Americans make up 13.8 percent of the population, but account for 27 of Americans living in poverty.

As Isaiah J. Poole pointed out in his post, “The Sinking American Electorate: African Americans Still In Depression,” the story these numbers tell is an old familiar one for African-Americans: the more things change, the more they stay the same. If the rest of the country caught a cold during the recession, African-American communities caught pneumonia, and are far from recovering.

The persistence of disproportionate African-American unemployment is a capstone of the “heads-they-win-tails-we-lose” persistence of African Americans getting the worst when the economy declines and the least when the economy grows.

That pattern was repeated during the Great Recession. An essay on the black middle class in the National Urban League’s “State of Black America 2012″ report contains some of the stark details, concluding that “almost all of the economic gains of the last 30 years have been lost” since late 2007, and worse, “the ladders of opportunity for reaching the black middle class are disappearing.”