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Going Out with a Bangs

A racial disparity study gets a quiet response

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The results are in, the evidence is weighed, the tables have been consulted. Modern science has proved what we've all long suspected: Life in Pittsburgh sucks. It sucks for part-time and full-time workers alike. It sucks for white men, black women and just about everyone else.

 

This may not come as news to some, and sure enough the "Black-White Benchmarks Report" hasn't generated many headlines. Compiled by a team of University of Pittsburgh researchers led by Ralph Bangs, whose work on Pittsburgh's racial disparities is well known, the data was posted earlier this month at http://www.ucsur.pitt.edu/Benchmarks%202004.htm with little fanfare.

 

Maybe that's because there's only so much bad news we can take. The city government itself is teetering on the verge of insolvency, and in the past year the region as a whole has suffered job losses that rival any since the collapse of the steel industry.

 

About the only constant in all this is that life in Pittsburgh is worse for African Americans...and for African Americans, life in Pittsburgh is worse than in many other places. Compared to the black population in the nation's 70 largest cities, African Americans here have the nation's seventh-highest poverty rate, a rate more than twice as high as that of local whites. Pittsburgh ranks seventh in the percentage of blacks aged 16 to 19 who are neither in school nor the workforce; the rate for local whites is less than a third of that. Household income for local blacks is below the average for other cities, and just a bit more than half of what Pittsburgh's white households earn.

 

Still, compared to earlier installments of Bangs' research, these numbers are downright sunny. Conditions for the city and the region have improved since 1990, which gives you a sense of just how lousy things have been around here. Median income for blacks increased by as much as 25 percent -- an increase higher than whites enjoyed -- and poverty rates have dropped. Home ownership among blacks improved marginally, as did educational attainment: There are fewer high school dropouts in Pittsburgh today, and more African Americans with college degrees.

 

But it's worth noting that Bangs' numbers are based on the 2000 Census and reflect conditions back before the economic downturn began taking its toll here. His figures may represent the city's best-case scenario...and even at that, the findings are pretty grim. As the study notes, "[f]ull-time and part-time African American and white female and male workers" -- or as we non-social scientists say, "just about everybody in Pittsburgh" -- are trying to get by on "some of the lowest earnings in urban America. The quality of jobs needs to be greatly improved."

 

In fact, even if local blacks were able to catch up to local whites, it'd be like tying for last place. Out of the 70 largest cities in America, whites here have the fourth-lowest median household income. Thus the grim attitude of Pittsburgh these days: African Americans feel like whites get all the breaks, even though many whites feel just plain broke. According to Bangs' statistics, they're both right to feel slighted. No matter what your race, you'd be better off almost anywhere else...and that's about as close to equality as Pittsburgh is likely to get for a while.

 

Of course, whites can take solace knowing that they're still calling most of the shots. Earlier studies by Bangs have complained that blacks are underrepresented in corporate boardrooms and the City-County Building: Now we find that the same old white guys who've led this city into its current financial morass are supposed to pull it back out. State lawmakers appointed five white males to Pittsburgh's Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a non-elected board charged with assessing the city's budget problems and proposing solutions.

 

A handful of black politicians complained about the lack of representation on the board last month, but most of those complaints have been shrugged off and bought off: The panel hired an African-American attorney as its solicitor, and defenders argued that the racial composition of the board wasn't that important. (As a Post-Gazette editorial sniffed, critics were acting "as if the remedy for a bankrupt city is a local Rainbow Coalition.") What mattered, we were told, was the board's ability to solve problems.

 

What the Bangs material suggests, though, is that who you are may determine which problems you think are worth solving. At first blush, it may make sense to close the city's rec centers, pools and senior centers: The city will be forced to cut costs somehow, after all, and Pittsburgh may well have more of these facilities than other cities its size. But it turns out we may need them more than other cities our size.

 

Bangs' statistics find that more than half of Pittsburgh's African Americans over age 65 live alone -- the third-highest concentration of such seniors in the country. Also potentially home alone: More than two-thirds of the city's black children, who are more likely than children in other cities to be raised by a single parent. (White children and seniors are also disproportionately likely to be on their own for much of the day, though the percentages aren't as high.) "African Americans and whites have greater social-service needs in the Pittsburgh area than in most regions," Bangs concludes. "More public and private spending for social programs will be required here than in most regions to meet [those] needs."

 

You'll notice that there's little talk of expanding services these days: The most anyone has called for is to prevent cutting them further. If Bangs' numbers haven't gotten much attention, neither do the people those numbers represent. Elderly shut-ins and latchkey kids don't make much of political coalition, and neither, sadly, do a handful of social scientists.

 

Bangs' numbers speak for themselves -- at least they better, since no one else is likely to. But will anyone listen?

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