'Concentrated poverty' isolates,

stifles poor black children

Black American children experience and confront unique ecological circumstances not shared by white children, said Vonnie McLoyd, a McArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at Duke University. "These include racial prejudice and discrimination and, for a substantial number of children, persistent poverty and involuntary racial segregation deriving from historic and contemporary forces," she said.

McLoyd, this year's Grace Towns Hamilton Lecturer talked about "Reducing Stressors: Increasing Supports in the Lives of African American Children," on April 17.

McLoyd stressed that poverty in this country is a broad-based problem affecting lots of children beyond African-Americans. "America's children, irrespective of race, are faring less well economically than their counterparts two decades ago," she said.

However, African American children are two to three times more likely than white children to experience poverty in any one year, she said. And in rates of persistent poverty, there are "profound differences between black and white children," she added, noting that black children make up a large part of those who are persistently poor during all or most of their childhoods.

Poor black children are much more likely than poor white children to live in "concentrated poverty"-in communities that are economically depressed, socially isolated and located in the inner city, she said. In these communities, there are fewer jobs, social supports and public and private services like high quality child care, schools, parks and community centers. And environmental stresses associated with poverty-such as street violence, illegal drugs and homelessness-are very pervasive in these communities, she added.

Persistent poverty also seems to lower children's levels of cognitive functioning and educational achievement, McLoyd said. "We have now come to understand that poverty is much more detrimental if it occurs during the first five years of life than if it occurs in middle childhood and adolescence," she said, noting this may be related to readiness for school.

During the past decade, researchers have devoted considerable effort to understanding why some children manage to do very well despite growing up poor, McLoyd said. They have found that these children tend to have parents who show them a lot of warmth and support, but are also very strict disciplinarians and monitor what their children are doing.

These parents are consistent in their family rules and garner support for their children from adults outside of the family, who can help monitor the children when the parents aren't around, McLoyd said. And these parents talk to their children a lot about racial barriers and about the importance of preparing for those barriers in order to overcome them.

McLoyd compared America to other western industrialized countries, noting that only Australia's child poverty rates are higher than the United States. "Fundamentally, what's underlying all of this is our prevailing value and belief system," she said.

"We tend to attribute poverty to individual deficits such as insufficient motivation, and we also have a greater tendency to perceive current social and economic conditions as equitable," she observed. "Essentially, we blame people for being poor, and we tend to have a greater tendency to think that people get what they deserve."

"I think that these attitudes converge to shape welfare policies that are predictably isolating, demeaning and ineffective in removing Americans from poverty."

-Linda Klein

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