Laura Ofobike

A fair amount of time and ink has gone into discussing the War on Poverty this year: Has it been worth the effort? Why are the poor still with us in spite of billions of dollars and hundreds of programs allocated to reduce, if not wipe out, poverty? How poor is poor, and what has poverty got to do with race or gender or geography or marriage or education? After a half-century, why does poverty remain a generational thing in some families and communities?

The side conversations wax and wane, circumstances highlighting one aspect or another in the tangle of issues that make up the poverty discussion. Supreme Court justices wrestling with affirmative-action laws, for instance, could just as easily have been reflecting on how race and access to college education tie into generational poverty. Or for a more visceral example of how race and the poverty question often intersect: A cartoonish character in Bunkerville, Nev., helps himself illegally to federal grazing land to preserve his family business and fortune but finds it reprehensible for a poor “Negro” to subsist on government subsidies.

To be poor is not simply to lack the means — the assets — to support a household adequately with food, shelter, clothing, education and so on. It is also to lack access to the essential information, institutions and resources in a community that make it possible to build and to retain those assets. You might say “access” is another word for “opportunity”: access to high quality education; to safe housing and secure neighborhoods; to banks and capital; to effective health care; to jobs and fair wages; to reliable services, including food and transportation.

In recent years, many studies have shown how closely wealth correlates positively with educational achievement, health outcomes, employment and income. Other studies have illuminated how access to wealth influences the way people think about and plan for the future, the assets serving as leverage to grow wealth and invest in the younger generations.

Children in wealthy households are more likely to graduate from college in higher numbers, get better jobs and earn higher incomes. The wealthy also have the advantage of connections in networks that translate into influence — influence that is the currency of economic, social and political life. The wealthy, more effectively than the poor, can deploy the power of government to protect assets and channels of opportunity.

Vast disparities exist in opportunities to build assets. This year’s Assets & Opportunities Scorecard, published by CFED, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, found that 44 percent of households in the country are “liquid asset poor,” that is in an emergency, they would barely have enough to cover daily living expenses for three months. It is enormously difficult to save for college, for retirement or for a business venture, hard to build wealth for the next generation, when you are trying to make it to the next paycheck.

The disparities are particularly stark for racial minorities, registering in a wide range of areas, including educational assets to home ownership, retirement savings and opportunities for business creation. The CFED report found that at $110,637 white households have nine times the net worth of households of color, $12,377. The home ownership rate for whites is 72 percent versus 46 percent for households of color. In Ohio, the liquid asset poverty level is 1.8 times higher for minority households.

If race has colored to a large degree the poverty discussion, there are historical reasons that remain as relevant as ever. There is no way to deny the lasting legacy of racism and the unequal access to opportunities it erected, the barriers maintained in many cases by the force of law.

Many factors are contributing to widespread poverty in the country now, and a history of racial prejudice, as vicious as the effects have been, is only one factor. The Great Recession has demonstrated how vulnerable a growing number of Americans are to falling into the poverty hole. So, as households struggle to get a firmer grip on the future, part of the challenge is to acknowledge where public policies and investments have skewed opportunities in ways that make it nearly impossible for some households and communities to break the cycle of poverty.

It is hard to build assets where there are no jobs or if the jobs are in the suburbs and we fail to invest, say, to extend public transportation. It is hard to invest in communities when banks and grocery stores yield to liquor stores and pay day lenders. It is hard to put something aside for the grandkids’ college fund when your house is up for a sheriff’s sale.

Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at lofobike@thebeaconjournal.com.