Black Boys in Crisis: The Poverty Paradox

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

At night the rats would run along the top of the couch where he slept, and he’d be so scared he couldn’t sleep. The boy was crying as he said this: as he told his teacher why he was always so tired in class, why he sometimes fell asleep, why he hadn’t done his homework. He had recently moved into the school district. His parents had divorced, and his mother had custody of him and his sister. They were staying with his mom’s relatives in a rundown house in a poor neighborhood, and he couldn’t find anyone to help him do his homework.

The boy was well-behaved and charming, but as the year progressed the teacher noticed that he was falling behind academically, and seemed lethargic. So she spoke to him privately one day, and that’s when she gathered his story. Alarmed, the teacher called the boy’s mother in for a joint conference. The mother began to weep in front of her son, saying that she worked nights and was simply not able to make ends meet. She felt terrible that she wasn’t able to help her children, but couldn’t see a way out of the hole she was in.

The teacher, who was also a single mother, sent the boy back to class and told the mother that she needed to get back in control. She offered the mother advice on managing her time, told her to find a pastor who could help her and wrote down concrete steps that she could take at home to help her children.

The mother followed the teacher’s advice. She spoke to a pastor, who helped her find a daytime job. At that job, she was able to save up for a down payment on a small apartment. She started spending time with her son in the evenings, helping him get caught up on his homework. And it worked: the boy passed second grade and went on to become a successful student.

The Statistics of Poverty

A startling number of black Americans live in poverty. These are members of families that have an annual income at or below the federal poverty level, which is adjusted annually to account for inflation and price changes. The poverty level is the income that economic research suggests is needed to meet basic needs. As of 2016, the federal poverty level for a family of four was $24,300. African-American families and especially African-American children live in poverty at significantly higher rates than other Americans. As of 2014, 27 percent of all African Americans lived below the poverty line, compared to 11 percent of all Americans. This figure increases to 33 percent for black children.

In America today the federal poverty level does not provide enough income for a family to do more than survive. Therefore, it is perhaps a more accurate representation of the income inequality in America to also consider those who qualify as low-income. Individuals are considered low-income if they earn less than two times the federal poverty levels. The federally established levels are good baselines for comparison, but it is important to remember that the cost of living varies based on location and region. Urban areas are on average more expensive than rural areas for families. For example, in 2011, it cost on average $64,000 per year for a family of four to meet basic needs in Los Angeles, California, while it would cost the same family only $42,000 if they lived in Jackson, Mississippi. Even though urban areas require more income for families to survive, rural areas (which include much of the Southern and Western United States) have the highest rates of children living in low-income families.

Regardless of geographic location, children under the age of six make up a disproportionally large percentage of low-income individuals. Not surprisingly, African Americans comprise a majority of this group. Sixty-five percent of all black children under the age of six live in low-income families, compared to only 31 percent of white children.

Race is not the only factor that contributes to African-American children living in poverty. Family structure also plays a significant role. Families with two adults have more opportunities for income, and therefore avoiding poverty, but unfortunately, this is not the reality for a large percentage of black children. Single mothers are raising over half of black children, and 39 percent of these single-parent households live in poverty. Despite some positive trends in the early 2000s, these rates have hovered between 40 and 50 percent for the better part of a century.

What are your thoughts on the poverty paradox? How can we help black boys who are trying to succeed in school while dealing with extreme and debilitating poverty?

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