Growing income inequality reveals racial divide

Matthes believes Missouri’s history as a slave state might be part of the problem.

A driving force behind City Manager Mike Matthes’ proposed 2015-16 fiscal year budget is income inequality here in Columbia, he recently expressed. Matthes said a growing disparity between racial groups in the community has led him to believe that although the city is improving overall, not every member of the community is being included in that growth.

After conducting research for the strategic plan, Matthes found that the income levels in the Black community are only equivalent to 60 percent of what white households earn, and the unemployment rate for black citizens is almost four times what the unemployment rate is for whites.

In 2009, the unemployment rate for African-Americans was at 14.1 percent, while the unemployment rate for whites was at 5.3 percent. However, as the years passed, the unemployment rate for whites went down to 4.4 percent in 2013 and increased to 15.7 percent for African-Americans in the same year.

In order to combat these lopsided numbers, Matthes said he hopes to implement new strategies with the budget proposal to include creating more well-paying jobs with benefits, such as manufacturing jobs; allocating $100,000 to the organization Job Point to provide vocational training services; designating $492,980 to the Career Awareness Related Experience program; as well as partnering with local education experts.

Matthes said he believes history itself, as well as the repercussions of institutionalized racism that the community deals with to this day, was one of the factors that may have contributed to such a large disparity in unemployment levels.

“I think history has a lot to do with it,” Matthes said. “Missouri was a slave state, so there are many black families in Columbia who have (ancestors) who were enslaved right here in Missouri. It’s a troubling history, and we’re still wrestling with the ramifications of that.”

Matthes said that not only was the black community previously prevented from participating in “mainstream society” with the enactment of Jim Crow laws, but they were also negatively affected by urban renewal and the closing of Sharp End, the black-owned business shopping district in Columbia, in the 1960s.

The city currently has programs in place to help connect at-risk youth with job training skills, including CARE and Cradle to Career. Despite these programs, Matthes said he is worried that the issue of the racial income gap is growing.

“The concern is we have all these programs, but the problem is getting worse, and that’s what’s really alarming,” Matthes said. “The unemployment gap is bigger; the achievement gap is bigger than it was 10 years ago. So we have to do something different, and our hope is by aligning all our programs together, and really connecting them in ways we haven’t before, we can become more efficient, more effective.”

Matthes plans to pair up with education experts within the Columbia Public School District and MU. However, Matthes said there is more to consider than simply establishing these relationships to make these partnerships successful. He said a part of their focus is going to be figuring out how to get residents to attend MU.

“There’s a lot of work before that,” Matthes said. “ . . . We’re going to be working with (Cradle to Career) to try and connect the dots (and) connect all these different programs together so we can get folks ‘in the pipeline,’ you might say.”

Columbia is not the only city facing this problem. According to a list published by Bloomberg of the 50 American cities with the greatest income inequality, college towns are some of the highest ranked cities on the list.

Columbia earns the 17th ranking with a Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality from zero to one — of .5313, with some other notable college towns on the list being Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts and Gainesville, Florida.

MU Economics professor Peter Mueser said that college towns may be high-ranking because they are where large numbers of young people who are earning little to no income live. That factor could skew the actual levels of income inequality in a city, he said.

“You’re taking these (students) who are poor in some period of their life, and if you’re putting them into an equation for looking at the difference in income across people, you’ll look like you have a bunch of poor people, but in fact, that’s a very misleading measure,” Mueser said.

While Matthes said he acknowledges this factor, he took it out of his thought process when looking at income inequality here in Columbia.

“Our free-and-reduced lunch program in the Columbia Public Schools is at an all-time high,” Matthes said. “. . . The black community having four times the unemployment rate (is) not due to (any) status as a student.”

Regardless of the cause, Matthes said the city government is working toward reversing this issue.

“It’s something we do because we are a community and we want everyone here to be able to thrive,” Matthes said. “That’s our goal as a community government, is to make life better for everyone who lives here, not just most people.”

Matthes’s proposed city budget is in the process of being approved and will be made official in September.

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