Homelessness and Black History: Poverty and Income

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts examining the historic roots of homelessness and African Americans. Prior posts can be found here, here, and here. 

Both poverty and income strongly correlate with race in the United StatesAmong all racial groups, Black Americans are second most likely to experience poverty, with 21% living below the poverty threshold, following Native Americans at 25%. Black Americans in particular have only ten cents for every dollar in wealth that white families have. 

The hardships of poverty and lack of a robust social safety net make it extremely likely that a person experiencing poverty will be unable to afford necessary expenses like food, health care costs, and housing, making it a key predictor for homelessness. Therefore, Black people’s overrepresentation among people living in poverty directly leads to their overrepresentation in homelessness.

A History of Economic Racism 

Black people’s inability to build meaningful wealth has its roots in the very inception of this nation. While on its face the end of slavery should have meant the opportunity for Black people to build wealth, in reality each generation of Black Americans since the end of slavery has faced a new, even more insidious set of obstacles to obtaining and keeping wealth, status, and stability 

The abolition of outright slavery in the US quickly led to the introductions of even more insidious barriers to equity, including sharecropping, forced prison labor, Jim Crow segregation laws, and voter disenfranchisement. These new institutions made life very difficult for Black people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and made wealth accumulation nearly impossible. 

Modern wealth disparities are also exacerbated by factors like patterns of inequity in income and employmentIn 2019, the average white household income was $76,057 while for Black families it was $46,073, a difference of around forty percent. Reasons for this gap are varied. First, Black people are more likely than white people work hourly, poverty-wage jobsBlack people are also about twice as likely as white people to be unemployed (actively seeking work) than white people, a figure that has held steady for the last seventy years. And when they do find employment, workplace discrimination means that Black workers are still paid less than their white counterparts at every level of employment, even with comparable qualifications.  

Generational Inequality 

Black people are also less likely to have wealthy, homeowning parents. Research shows that having wealthier parents correlates strongly with economic stability later in life. Having parents homeowning parents increases the likelihood that a child will eventually go on to become a homeowner themselves. Historical forms of racism like housing discrimination mean that the parents and grandparents of Black people living today are far less likely to have owned homes than white members of their cohort. This means that where white people are more likely to benefit from generational cycles of wealth and ownership, Black people are less likely to go on to have wealth, own homes, or have stable housing. Because homeownership is a key strategy for accumulating wealth, these conditions even further entrench racial wealth disparities.
Like many other modern outgrowths of inequity, the overrepresentation of Black people in homelessness is direct result of slavery. As Black History Month closes out, it is imperative to keep in mind that addressing inequity wherever it exists, both within and outside of our work, must be a consistent, year-round effort if any progress is to be made.