By some of the most important measures of social progress, black and Latino residents of Colorado have lost ground compared to white residents in the decades since the civil rights movement.
Minority gains made during the 1960s and 1970s have eroded with time, an I-News Network analysis of six decades of demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau found. In other categories, the gaps between whites and minorities have steadily widened since 1960.
The analysis focused on family income, poverty rates, high school and college graduation and home ownership. Health data and justice records examined also revealed disparities.
Similar racial and ethnic inequities appear nationwide. But one glaring fact about Colorado is that it went from a state that was by most measures more equitable than the national average in the first decades covered by the analysis to one that is less so now.
According to most experts, racial and ethnic inequality will pose a significant future handicap for a state in which minorities are a rising population.
“You would think we as a nation would have overcome a lot of things since then,” said Eric Nelson, vice president of the Aurora NAACP, after examining the data analysis.
There are important caveats, of course, including the decades-long rise of professional classes among blacks and Latinos and striking examples of individual wealth and achievement. Minorities have made gains in a number of categories, but even in those have not kept pace.
By the broad gauge of the Census measure, recent decades have not been kind to aspirations of equality by the state’s minority residents. Almost 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his generation-defining “I have a dream” speech, income and education gaps have remained stubbornly high:
In 1970, for example, black families earned 73 percent of white family incomes and Hispanic families earned 71.5 percent. By 2010, those numbers had fallen to 60 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
Almost 60 percent of Latino households were owner-occupied in 1970; now it’s less than 50 percent. Most experts attribute an immigration influx with pulling down Latino numbers.
The gaps among adults with college degrees have steadily widened since 1960, with the percent of whites with college degrees three times higher than the Latino rate and double the black rate. Those disparities are the nation’s worst for Latinos and blacks.
Among more positive trends, 86 percent of black adults had graduated from high school in 2010, up from 31 percent in 1960. Latinos have also improved high school graduation rates through the decades, but still lagged badly at 65 percent, compared to 95 percent for whites, in 2010.
Gaps are in several areas
Poverty, income and education gaps in the state parallel other important disparities outlined in many studies that show blacks and Latinos lagging behind whites in one critical measure of health after another.
The U.S. Census Bureau only began tracking data about health insurance in recent years and does not collect other information about overall health. But data compiled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment over the past 15 years shows that the state’s ethnic minorities do not fare as well as white residents when it comes to disease and death.
Blacks and Latinos, for example, experience significantly higher rates of infant mortality and deaths from diseases such as diabetes than whites in Colorado.
“The general statement that I make is, we’re sicker than most and dying sooner than we should,” said Grant Jones, founder and executive director of the Center for African American Health in Denver.
The implications of inequality for the future are enormous: The number of minority babies being born nationally recently eclipsed that of whites, and, in Colorado, 46 percent of children under one year of age in 2011 were minorities, the Census Bureau reported.
That holds economic consequences in the future for all Colorado residents.
Latinos are the largest minority group, comprising 21 percent of the population in 2011, compared to 4 percent for blacks and 70 percent for whites.
I-News explored the social phenomena behind the numbers with community activists and politicians, researchers from liberal and conservative think tanks, educators, church leaders and people in the street. The reasons given for the gaps were myriad and complex. They are rooted in history and intergenerational in nature.
Among those cited:
• The civil rights era policies that provided a boost to minorities in the 1960s and ‘70s, such as affirmative action, have been diminished or dismantled.
“For all intents and purpose, affirmative action has been wiped out,” said former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. “There is no longer a desire to assure that minorities are being placed in jobs.”
Affirmative action programs, first envisioned by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and strengthened and expanded by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, have been narrowed or eliminated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions and, in individual states, by legislative action or by voters.
• Many thousands of Colorado’s good paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs have disappeared, hurting minority families disproportionately.
• Support for K-12 education has diminished. The cost of attending college has skyrocketed.
Single-parent families cited
The percentage of single-parent families and the number of births to single mothers has soared among black households, exacerbating the gaps, and immigration and teen-age births in the Latino population have also led to widening disparities, experts said.
“You have a majority of children, particularly in the African-American community, growing up in single-parent households,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who is black. “There’s nothing that impacts those issues — issues of economics, their education, their quality of life — more than the economic challenges faced by single mothers.”
Bridgette Oliver, 26, is one such mom.
Late last year, she packed up her three young children and left her boyfriend after he got another woman pregnant.
So far, he’s paid no child support. She and their children, ages 4 months to 7 years, live in subsidized housing in Denver while she works toward an associate degree in radiation technology. The family makes do on $1,250 a month from welfare, school financial aid and food stamps.
At some point, Oliver hopes to work full time and support herself and her children. But unless her former boyfriend steps up, she’ll be the sole bread winner.
“I’ll continue to do my best for them,” Oliver said. “They keep me going every day when I get up.”
Apart from the Census numbers, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in Colorado 45 percent of black infants, 35 percent of Hispanic infants and 18 percent of white infants are born to single mothers.
That corresponds to a dramatic surge in the past five decades of children raised in single-parent homes, but the rate is particularly striking among blacks — 50 percent of black households in Colorado were headed by a single parent in 2010 compared to 25 percent of white households. Among Latino households with young children, 35 percent were headed by a single parent, according to the I-News analysis.
Census data shows that single motherhood is a greater indicator of poverty than race. Children living in a female-headed household in Colorado are four times more likely to grow up in poverty, the I-News analysis showed, than children in married-couple households.
“From an economic standpoint, one plus one equals two,” said Christelyn D. Karazin, an Internet activist striving to reduce the birthrate to single mothers. “Even if two people are working at McDonalds, that’s two McDonalds salaries right there.”
Poverty, education intertwined
Regardless of which way the causal arrow runs, poverty and education are intertwined across the range of societal distress. Several experts said the state’s pullback in funding education over the past two decades has narrowed the path for escaping poverty.
Between 1992 and 2010, according to Census data, Colorado plunged from 24th to 40th on overall state spending per student for K-12 education. When compared to per capita personal income, Colorado ranked 45th among the states on K-12 spending.
Public school funding, dependent upon property taxes, is “inherently unequal” from district to district, said Corrine Fowler of the Colorado Progressive Coalition. And even within one district, schools in affluent neighborhoods have the ability to fundraise in ways that schools in poor neighborhoods do not.
Disagreements on the gaps
The widening gaps in Colorado are related to national political swings through the decades, both liberals and conservatives agree, but they disagree substantially on just how that has worked.
The civil rights era begat President Johnson’s war on poverty, a host of society-altering civil rights laws, financial support to the poor and many other programs aimed at leveling the playing field.
Some said the opposite happened.
“What we’ve done in America is design a system that rewards people for not working and locks them into poverty,” said former Republican Colorado U.S. Senator Hank Brown. “It’s a tragedy of the first order because the vast majority of people who are in poverty don’t want to be on welfare. They want jobs.”
The widening gaps, in most appraisals, do not bode well for Colorado’s future.
Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, noted that more and more of Colorado’s under-18, school-aged population is brown and black, growing up in households that are economically disadvantaged, “which all the research shows places a negative strain on their educational potential.”
Racial inequality poses a threat to the future economic viability of the state, Berube said, if in 20 years disadvantaged minorities are the majority of the workforce.
“You still have on balance an aging white population and a young minority population. There are only so many white people you can pull from the rest of the country to help adjust for that imbalance and the challenge it is bringing,” he said.
Contact Burt Hubbard at email@example.com or 303-446-4931. Contact Ann Carnahan Espinola at firstname.lastname@example.org. I-News intern Leia Larsen contributed to this report, which was made possible, in part, by grants from The Colorado Health Foundation and the French-American Foundation.
• This is the first of a four-day series about racial and ethnic disparities in Colorado.
Monday: The rise of the single-parent household is a major factor in the widening disparities between races.
Tuesday: The changing economy is a root source of growing inequities.
Wednesday: Hispanic and blacks in Colorado have not equally enjoyed the benefits of health-care advances.
• The project has been assembled as a 128-page e-book in PDF format. The e-book includes stories, graphics, a selection of photos and more. Download at www.inewsnetwork.org.
• The I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS is a non-profit investigative news services that focuses on investigative reporting. Its funding comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, The Fund for Investigative Journalism and others. I-News, founded in 2009, this month merged with Rocky Mountain PBS and public radio station KUVO. Learn more about I-News at www.inewsnetwork.org.
• I-News and The Gazette will host a community conversation about the findings of the Losing Ground project 5:30-7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Tim Gill Center for Public Media in Colorado Springs, 315 E. Costilla St. For information, call Keanna Smith, 418-5851. Other such events are planned along the Front Range.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
I-News analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data from 1960 through 2010 to calculate the Latino, black and white demographics for high school and college graduation rates for adults 25 years and older, poverty of all people in each group, median family income and home ownership rates for households occupied by each group. Median family income was used as a measurement because median household income was not a category in 1960 and 1970.
For 1960 and 1970, I-News used the 1 percent Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) unweighted from the Minnesota Population Center website at the University of Minnesota. This allowed us to distinguish African American numbers from the total non-white category used in the published Census tables. We also used the PUMs to retrieve poverty information for whites, not Hispanic. For several states, including some in New England and some in the Intermountain West, the black and Latino populations were very small in 1960 and 1970. There were major, self-acknowledged problems with the Census Bureau’s 1970 attempt to count Latinos. There was, for example, confusion in the Midwest and South over the Latino question that had many white residents mistakenly identifying as Latinos. In addition, residents in several Mideast states were only asked if they were from Puerto Rico. The PUMS data mitigated these problems, but did not eliminate them entirely.
1980: I-News used the pdf version of the published Census tables on the U.S. Census Bureau web site.
1990: I-News downloaded the Census information from the U.S. Census Bureau. The white, not Hispanic population was calculated by subtracting the Latino, black, Asian and Native American totals from the total population.
2000 and 2010: I-News downloaded the data from the U.S. Census Bureau Web page using American Fact Finder. For 2000, the Census long form data for income, poverty, and education was used. For 2010, the 1-year American Community Survey was analyzed.