Q&A: Overcoming the Inequalities Faced by African American Youth

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Cover of report, showing the face of a young African American child.

More African American children than white children are born into poverty in the United States. That difference at birth leads to inequalities throughout a child’s life, according to “Portrait of Inequality 2012: Black Children in America.” Published by the Children’s Defense Fund, a child advocacy nonprofit in Washington, the report compares how African American and white children fare when it comes to childhood poverty, family stability, health, school readiness, education, employment and other factors.

To learn how youth workers can think about and address the disparities African American youth face, we spoke to MaryLee Allen, who directs the fund’s child welfare and mental health policy and advocacy.

NCFY: Is there a relationship between the inequalities detailed in your report and youth homelessness?

Allen: Clearly there’s a relationship between the inequities in the report and the challenges facing youth later in life, of which homelessness is certainly one of them. Children are born with certain challenges and the odds they have to overcome increase over time. As you look at it, as children move on in life, many of the challenges they face can be attributed to the effects of poverty. Not only are black children three and a half times as likely as white children to live in extreme poverty, but also more than two-thirds of black children who are born poor will remain poor for at least half their childhood.

Poverty stacks the odds against children throughout their life—whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s early childhood, whether it’s education, whether it’s dropping out of school, unemployment. Those problems, which all contribute to homelessness, continue to grow. In each of those areas black children and black families are far behind white families.

Youth end up homeless too often when they’ve fallen behind in school and dropped out of school. One of the most striking data in “Portrait of Inequality” is that more than 80 percent of black public school students can’t read or do math at grade level in 4th and 8th grade. So the likelihood that they are going to end up dropping out or being pushed out is very significant.

I would make the same connection when it comes to teen pregnancy. Poor performance is related to their chance of dropping out and their increased likelihood of becoming pregnant as a teenager.

NCFY: What should youth workers do with the information in the report?

Allen: There’s several things: Knowing the data, but also keeping faces on the numbers is an extremely important thing to do. We hope they will—and we know many do—join with others to work to eliminate child poverty but also to make sure that we invest in early childhood, development, education, health,  and specialized treatment that all children need. My experience has been that youth workers and the young people they serve better than anyone can make policymakers and other interested citizens understand the odds children are facing but also convey the opportunities there are to overcome the odds and give every child that high school diploma, college degree and job that they need.

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