Talk Back

In Response to Black Poverty

Young black male child looking skyward.
Credit: Thinkstock

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In the box-office hit, Disney Pixar’s Inside Out, Riley starts out life on a joyful path and winds up heading down a bumpy road as she tries to master the complicated interior life of her emotions. At times, the 11-year-old lives an isolated life feeling her buttons pushed by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger.

Riley’s life is quite different from the 14.7 million children in the U.S. living in poverty: The poverty rate declined for Hispanics, whites and Asians, and held steady at 38 percent for Black children compared with the 20 percent national average, according to a recent Pew Research analysis of U.S. Census data.

Unlike the fictional Riley, Black children are more likely to start life on quite a bumpy road.

With one in five children living in poverty in the U.S., it is time to sound the alarm and create more comprehensive policies focused on family-centered, community-based asset building strategies.

For example, Philadelphia’s Shared Prosperity Plan goes a step further than many existing poverty strategies by building on existing individual economic transfers, expanding workforce development and early learning programs and investing in a promise zone to provide additional forms of support for some of the most vulnerable children. Like our colleague Roger Clay wrote on Quartz, we believe more collective strategies will move us toward the kind of shared prosperity our children need. Even with more robust economic transfers and asset building programs, vulnerable children will still need family-centered, community-based programs with social supports to help children and families weather both the economic and emotional tides of poverty. A Black child’s emotional roller coaster may not be triggered by tween angst and family changes, but the harsh realities and toxic stress associated with living in poverty.

Sadness overcomes her when her father is arrested for failure to pay child support. In South Carolina, one in eight, or 13.2 percent of inmates are incarcerated for failing to pay child support.

Fear strikes when her single mother has lost her job again. It seems harder each time to find a job as her mother is among the 9.5 percent of Blacks counted among the unemployed. Even when her mother works, she earns only 64 percent of white male’s wages.

Disgust gets the best of her living in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty, failing schools, substandard housing, violence, and drug and human trafficking. She not only copes with her own poverty, but the intersecting poverty of the entire neighborhood.

Anger percolates when she struggles with not having the food and other basics every child she sees on television has. Her household of four is at the poverty threshold with an annual income of less than $23,624. About twice this income is really needed to cover rent, utilities, childcare, transportation, food and other basic needs.

Constantly juggling such negative emotions, Black children can grow up in a fight or flight mode with cortisol constantly washing over their brain, according to Dr. Shonkoff. The toxic stress of poverty affects a child’s brain development as well as educational, employment and health outcomes later in life.

To be sure, the face of poverty does not always look the same. It depends on the neighborhood you live in and the number of negative experiences you encounter and the family and community support available to buffer these challenges for children and parents.

Riley and her family may experience economic shocks like job loss that land them in a spell of poverty. These short spells of poverty are commonly experienced by most people at some point in their lives.

It is most likely a Black child will not escape the consequences of childhood poverty. For her, an extended spell of poverty will most likely become a form of adult poverty ranging from chronic low-wage employment, underemployment, unemployment, or spells of homelessness.

Without looking at poverty from the inside out and the way it challenges the inner-life of children, it will be difficult to formulate policies that address the economic, social, educational and emotional challenges associated with poverty.  The only way more children will rise out of poverty to participate in a new wave of American prosperity is by offering real pathways to economic security. There have been occasional glimpses of how this might be done successfully. By ensuring such opportunities are offered more systematically, millions of Black children might finally escape poverty and begin to experience lasting joy.


Stephanie C. Boddie, Ph.D., is a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty associate at Washington University and a Public Voices Greenhouse participant for Global Policy Solutions.


Trina Williams Shanks, Ph.D. is an associate professor at University of Michigan School of Social Work and faculty associate at Washington University’s Center for Social Development.