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Measuring The African-American Financial Divide


We continue this week to dig into the findings of our poll of African-American communities and how black Americans rate many aspects of their lives. We conducted the poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

While the gap between the well-off and poor in the U.S. has stretched wide in recent years, we found that black Americans describe their financial divide as a nearly 50-50 split, and it affects how they view their world. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There's a place on Chicago's South Side where every Saturday morning, more affluent African-Americans mingle with those who aren't as financially well-off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tell somebody to push his own as we push for change, push for freedom...

CORLEY: The emcee in a choir rev up the crowd during the weekly forum at the headquarters of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the civil rights organization led by Reverend Jesse Jackson. Some in the audience wear suits or dresses; others are in jeans. Some walk with canes or sit in wheelchairs. Several here are ready to talk about the results of our survey.

SANDRA MCKINLEY: My name is Sandra McKinley, and I am the manager of the television studio at Rainbow PUSH Coalition national headquarters.

PAM ROSS: I am Pam Ross, and I'm the director of leadership development at Family Christian Center in...

ALEX MARTIN SR.: Well, I'm Alex Martin Sr. I like to consider myself working poor. I work every week...

CORLEY: His son is Alex Martin Jr.

ALEX MARTIN JR.: I'm 23 years old - four with the potentials of being rich.

CORLEY: The thing that brings all of them to this meeting is their desire to improve the lives of black Americans. The African-Americans who took our survey fall largely into two categories: people who rate their personal finances as excellent or good and those who rate them as not so good or poor. The differences between the two groups were substantial.

For instance, 85 percent of African-Americans in good financial shape gave their child's school a grade of A or B. Only 55 percent of those less well-off gave their schools high marks. And even fewer of the poor gave police a top grade. Alex Martin Sr. lives in a struggling suburb near Chicago.

SR.: For too long, we've settled for certain things in our community thinking, well, that's how the hood is. But that's not how the hood is. We don't have to put up with open-air drug markets and random shootings on the streets. So I think the proactive policing isn't really there like it should be.

CORLEY: But a majority of more money to African-Americans said they felt safe and were happy with their police departments.

Sandra McKinley, the television manager at Rainbow PUSH, says police in the more affluent Chicago suburb where she lives deserved a grade of B.

MCKINLEY: But we're also a smaller environment that has different requirements for what our policemen have to deal with.

CORLEY: The poll results did show instances where those in good financial shape and those on shaky ground have similar views. Both, for example, were satisfied with garbage collection and sanitation in their neighborhoods. But when it came to parks and sports facilities, the divide surfaced again. Alex Martin Jr., the 23-year-old who hopes to be rich, is a welterweight boxer and coach.

JR.: And we need to build better playgrounds than we have, worry about the cleanliness of our playground, because I go to the basketball court all the time and I see how dirty it is. And I'm like, man, we need to clean this up. We need to do something about this.

CORLEY: It might seem like a given that people with more financial wherewithal and those with less money see things differently.

Harvard University professor Robert Blendon, who analyzed the results, says that's true to a certain extent. But the divisions in this poll were persistent and striking.

ROBERT BLENDON: And it really suggests that people's lives are in sort of two different places based on their financial situation today.

CORLEY: So Blendon says there is a clear 50-50 split. Nearly half the African-Americans surveyed are in good financial shape and think one way. The other half is less secure with often significantly different opinions. And that's a surprise.

Even so, a majority of those surveyed were like Pam Ross, the leader at a church in Munster, Indiana, who says she's satisfied with her life and her community.

ROSS: I believe God gives us all things richly to enjoy, but I don't really think that if you had this kind of car, this kind of house, you check the box and say I'm living the American dream. I believe if you are connected to your Creator and you're living in your purpose, you are successful.

CORLEY: Despite the very real concerns reported in the survey, that sense of optimism was present throughout, no matter a person's financial status. Eighty-eight percent of African Americans in good financial shape and three quarters of those less fortunate said they either had or one day would achieve the American dream however they defined it.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.