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Racial inequality threatens Kansas City economy

Updated: 2013-10-29T04:27:50Z

By DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City’s overall economic resilience — historically and since the last recession — has tended to mask the severe education and unemployment problems for the area’s blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.

It’s time to take the mask off.

“If there’s a hole in the boat, it doesn’t matter if you’re in first class or steerage,” said Anita Maltbia, director of Kansas City’s Green Impact Zone. “You’re all going down.”

In a report to be shared today with area civic leaders, the Mid-America Regional Council and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce hope to focus the attention of well-educated, well-off whites on a problem that threatens the area’s overall economic health.

Widening racial gaps in income, health, and work opportunities are putting the entire Kansas City area’s economic future at risk, according to a new study.

The trend will turn around only if the nine-country metropolitan area improves its “equity profile,” researchers are due to tell civic leaders at a Tuesday luncheon. That means expanding programs and policies to help people of color live in safer neighborhoods, get better educations and obtain decent-paying jobs.

The new study, “An Equity Profile of the Kansas City Region,” was commissioned by MARC and some local organizations that have formed the “Regional Equity Network.” It’s a first-ever look by PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California to assess inclusion — and barriers to inclusion — that are affecting the metro area’s minority youth.

Improving the economic lot of the area’s racial minorities is essential, the report said. By 2040, 42 percent of the area’s population is likely to be composed of minorities. In 2010, Census data put that share at 27 percent.

“Latinos, predominantly of Mexican American ancestry, and a diverse Asian population are leading the region’s growth,” the report said. “The Latino population grew 78 percent in the past decade, primarily from births to residents, and the Asian population grew 61 percent, primarily due to immigration.

“The region’s white population grew only 5 percent.”

It’s even more important to look at the racial composition of the youth population, which is dominated more heavily by people of color. Thirty-six percent of the Kansas City’s area youth “are people of color, compared with 15 percent of its seniors,” the report said.

Researchers said the onus is on “the predominantly white senior population” to invest in education and “community infrastructure” to support the area’s youth.

That means the area’s business, social service and government leaders must bring “collective advocacy” to bear, said Gwen Grant, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Kansas City.

“A lot of organizations are addressing these issues, but there’s no over-arching effort to coordinate and prioritize what’s most important,” said Dean Katerndahl, government innovations forum director at MARC. “The individual components haven’t been knitted together.”

Maltbia, Grant and many other social service providers lead programs that are addressing the inadequate education and lack of work readiness among many of the area’s urban youth. But, they both said, a larger buy-in is needed, along with policy changes.

It doesn’t help, Grant said, if their organizations provide work readiness training to young people who have police records if employers have policies against hiring ex-offenders or if would-be workers lack transportation to get to available jobs.

One in four blacks and Latinos live below the poverty level in the metro area. That is more than triple the poverty rate of whites in the region, the report said.

Also, the bottom half of the region’s full-time workers — whites included — have suffered a 6 percent decline in real wages since 1979. Meanwhile, wages of the top 10 percent of workers, many of whom are the area’s business and civic policy leaders, rose 13 percent.

That disparity unfortunately is helping widen population disconnects in the metro area, Maltbia said.

“We as humans at the top of the food chain have a hard time seeing connectedness to those in the lower socio-economic levels,” she said.

As many studies have indicated, each level of education tends to raise wages and help reduce racial inequalities. But data show that at every education level in the Kansas City area, “people of color have higher unemployment and lower wages than whites, and women have lower wages than their male counterparts.”

The study zeroed in on the education and skills gap that make many minority youth unemployable.

Kansas City now ranks about in the middle of the pack among the largest 150 regions in terms of its share of disconnected youth, who are neither in school nor working, the report said.

It also focused on the concentrated poverty of largely segregated communities, where “people of color are nine times more likely to live” than whites.

“While the region has low housing costs overall, communities of color, particularly renters, are more likely to pay too much for housing,” the report said. They also are “more likely to be car-less and disproportionately live in ‘food desert’ neighborhoods that lack grocery stores.”

The report concluded that the Kansas City area must do a better job connecting people of color to jobs, housing, transportation, quality education and training opportunities.

“Equity is the superior growth model,” Katerndahl said. “The whole workforce must be well-educated and engaged if you want this area to succeed.”

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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