A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats: Washington’s children of color still struggle to get by

Guest Contributor August 21, 2015 0
Photo by William Warby

Photo by William Warby

By Paola Maranan & Lori Pfingst
Guest Columnists

It’s not easy to bring up the subject of race and racism. As activists with the #BlackLivesMatter movement proved at Westlake Park earlier this month, no city in America, no matter how liberal it seems, can publicly host an entirely safe and frank discussion of our most profound national challenge. So it takes events like those in Westlake to get the conversation to move.

Those events shouldn’t have to be necessary. The facts alone are sufficient reason for us all to be talking.

Data released last month by KIDS COUNT in Washington show that child poverty is more common for Washington’s children of color. Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Latino children are disproportionately growing up in our state’s highest-poverty areas. Compared to the state average of 18 percent, approximately one in three—33 percent—of all Black, Native American, and Latino kids, and one in four Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian kids, live below the poverty line. That means, for example, that a family of four is making less than $24,250 a year—far less than it takes to afford life’s necessities.

Good jobs are key to family well-being. When parents can’t find stable employment that pays enough to cover basic needs, the entire family suffers. While the state unemployment rate has declined since the height of the recession, many in Washington state still struggle to find employment. Among the Black community, unemployment remains as high as 14 percent compared to the state average of seven percent. Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian Americans face similarly high rates of joblessness, according to U.S. Census data.

And for those who have jobs, roughly one in four Black and one in five Latino Washingtonians are working fewer hours than they wish, or in jobs for which they are overqualified or underpaid. A few of the basics of life—like housing and child care—are far harder to come by in communities of color. Black, Latino, multiracial, Native American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Washingtonians pay a far greater share of their income for child care and housing than their white peers.

What’s true in the statistics about economic security also shows up in education, health care, and family well-being. The dearth of affordable, culturally competent, high-quality early learning opportunities sets up kids of color poorly for success in school—so that by the time students reach the third grade, Black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian students are below the state average in reading proficiency. This culminates in lower rates of on-time graduation for children of color from many backgrounds, including among kids of Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian descent.

Those who do graduate face significant financial barriers to higher education: in-state tuition for Black and Latino students as a share of median household income is 50 percent higher than the statewide average.

This is not the Washington state we want our children to grow up in.

These stark differences in child well-being fall along lines of race and ethnicity in no small measure because of public policies with effects that vary sharply by race and ethnicity.

Too many of our state’s children are born and raised on an unequal and unstable footing, and what’s destabilizing our future is our national legacy of structural racism.

Racism—as it plays out in public practices in education, housing, employment and criminal justice that have thwarted the dreams and ambitions of kids and families—has always been a human-rights violation. Now, as our children lead the country into a more diverse reality, it’s a condition that none of us, of any race, can afford to perpetuate. We can’t have a prosperous 21st-century economy, an engaged democracy or a healthy community without implementing the strategies that give every family a chance to thrive.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which put forth the 2015 KIDS COUNT Data Book last month, recommends policies that result in higher pay, paid sick leave, flexible scheduling and expanded unemployment benefits. With these, we get higher family income, reduced stress on parents and an increased capacity of parents to invest in their kids.

This past legislative session, with the historic passage of the Early Start Act as a method of forwarding racial equity in the first five years of life, we saw progress toward the country our kids deserve. Right now, with numbers like these, no one can claim that Washington is in an economic recovery. To change the numbers so that they no longer describe a landscape of unequal futures, policymakers must work toward achieving equity for every child. Toward that aim, they’re a useful and motivating tool to call out for the kind of change our children need.

Lori Pfingst is Research & Policy Director at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. Paola Maranan is Executive Director of the Children’s Alliance. The two organizations make up KIDS COUNT in Washington, which gathers and analyzes emerging data on how kids are doing in our state, and turns that information into action on issues like poverty, hunger, health care, and education.

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