Oct 16, 2011

Being African-American in Iowa: Economy

Iowa Pubic Radio (IPR) correspondent Rob Dillard (@IPRDillard) has been working on a year-long assignment on diversity. In March-April 2011, IPR ran series of stories on Being Latino in Iowa that highlighted the Latino experience in my home state. Dillard covered stories on the effect of Latino populations on small towns and the importance of Latino food and culture. The series returned in September 2011 to focus on a different population in our state--African-Americans.  According to IPR, U.S. Census data show there are now 90,000 African-American adults living in Iowa. According to state department of education enrollment figures, there are almost as many African-American children enrolled in our public schools. My husband and his family have lived in the state since the 1960's and I found it interesting to hear what Rob Dillard learned about Being African-American in Iowa in 2011. His series was divided into five parts: education, economy, politics, health, and spirituality.  I plan to blog about my thoughts on each of these issues and how they relate to my family's experiences in Iowa.

Image via Davenport NAACP
According to the Iowa Public Radio podcast Being African-American in Iowa: Economy, 2,200 African-Americans in Iowa own their own businesses. Most African Americans in Iowa do not own their own businesses, though; instead they try to work for other people. Overall unemployment rate in Iowa is 6%. However, the unemployment rate for blacks in our state is more than twice that, at 13%.

The average income for a white family in Iowa is $61,000. The average income for a black family in Iowa is $27,000 (source: Status of African Americans in Iowa report). The poverty rate in 2008 for the African American population was 35.6%. The corresponding rate for Iowa as a whole is 11.5%.  These numbers echo a national trend. Using the demographics tool at the National Center for Children in Poverty's website you can select from a list of factors and compare poverty rates among the 50 states. In EVERY state, half or more of the African-American population lives in poverty.  Considerably less than half of white people in every state live in poverty.

Many families are trying to make ends meet, trying to go to college and live the American Dream...but they are finding it hard to make that dream become a reality. A mother on the podcast tells the story of her lost faith in the American Dream, and her story echoes the story of many people--especially young mothers--in my own neighborhood.  Many of the parents in my neighborhood came to Iowa from Chicago trying to make a better life for their children. Neighborhoods here are safer, housing is more affordable, and (for a while) decent jobs were available. Our community is home to an excellent community college and a state university, so there are opportunities for residents who aspire to better themselves through higher education.  A lot of young mothers who move to Iowa from Chicago enroll in school, work part-time jobs, and strive to achieve the American Dream. And like the mother interviewed for the podcast, they struggle.  Fast food restaurants and motels seem to be the top employers for those new to our community, and the average pay at such places is not enough to support a family.

Why are the numbers representing economic status of African-Americans so disproportionate when compared to the numbers representing the economic status of European-Americans? How do we improve the quality of life for African American families, both in Iowa and in the nation? How can we revive the American Dream? Like the founders of our nation, most people today are trying to make a better life for their families. Why is it so much harder to achieve that dream for African American families than others? The Iowa Commission on the Status of African Americans is trying to answer those questions, and to provide resources for African Americans in Iowa, such as listings of grant opportunities and employment opportunities.

What can others do to help? First and foremost, consider your own perceptions of African Americans in your community. Do you make assumptions about the abilities of African Americans? about their education? about their interests? Do you look black people in the eye when you walk by? Do you speak to them with the same respect you speak to other people? In every day situations, do you approach African Americans without fear?

Consider your perceptions, and if you see a difference in the way you treat African Americans from the way you treat the people from other cultures, please investigate why that is. True change begins within. Offer yourself the opportunity to experience a shift in perception. I believe that seeing all people as worthy human beings is the starting point for helping all people to achieve economic equality.

If you see people as equal to yourself,  you will begin to treat people as equal to yourself. 


  1. Great post! Thanks for reminding us all that change begins at the personal level ... checking our own perceptions ... and for highlighting the reality with figures.

    One of the best programs I ever participated in was a "Multicultural Scholars Program" at my local university. Some of the African-American students I met there are now lifelong friends. If more programs like that existed, I'm sure they'd go a long way toward reducing both stigmas and economic inequality.

  2. You've won the Liebster Award!: http://www.yesweretogether.com/2011/10/liebster-blog-award.html

  3. Thank you Atinuke!  I am so honored :-)

  4. Thank you so much for your comment!  The Multicultural Scholars Program sounds wonderful. It would be great if there were more programs that allowed people from different cultures/backgrounds to interact. 

  5. Powerful post, Jen. As I read it, I was thinking not only of preconceptions some have toward African Americans, but also of those toward the Hispanic community and how we all get lumped into one big ball. It used to bother me when non-Mexicans said, "But I'm not Mexican." I took it as an insult, as if they didn't want to be labeled "Mexican." Then I stopped to consider that what they were expressing was their anger at having their identities substituted with somebody else's. I had to come at it from a different angle -- not my own.

    You ask great questions that we should all stop and really think about. One of my first group assignments at school last week was to go home and read the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. We're to come back and give a group consensus on "white privilege." Amazing to me that it took an "invisible knapsack" for me to finally get it. 

  6. I hadn't read that Peggy McIntosh piece until Chantilly posted it on her blog with her "White Privilege" series. Definitely an eye-opener. Was your class able to come back and give a consensus? 

  7. Really great post Jen.  :)  It's so strange that we have all of these facts available that show the disparities, but somehow we're still able to ignore them.  So glad to hear that there are individuals out there trying to take some action.

  8. Thanks, Chantilly. I hope more people will take action. It's hard because when we talk about economic disparities there are often many people who want to do something, but think that they need to have money to take action. I hope that people learn that just changing their own perspectives and behaviors doesn't cost a penny and can make a huge difference!

  9. Such a great point!  If we change our mindsets, we can dismantle the systems that allow racism to thrive...

  10. Yes! I wasn't expecting folks to agree, either, maybe because of the obnoxious comments I've come across online and on YouTube, but McIntosh's examples make it easy for the reader to place themselves in the other's shoes. Reading it was a real eye-opener for me. It made total and complete sense. I think that leading with male privilege helped drive the point home.


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