By WILLIAM M. HARTNETT
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A decade of unprecedented economic growth and racial diversification did little to change demographic disparities between people of different races across Florida and in Palm Beach County.
Blacks remain far less likely than whites to own their own homes, face a life expectancy six years less than the population as a whole and are more likely to grow up in a home headed by a single woman than in one with both parents, according to data released last week from the 2000 Census.
The profile of a typical white Floridian couldn’t be more different: A married homeowner in her mid-40s to mid-50s. Maybe the kids have left the nest. Retirement is no longer a distant notion but an event just over the horizon. Beyond that could be another 15 years. Maybe 20. Or more.
“The common denominator of these circumstances is not race as much as poverty,” said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida’s Children, a statewide advocacy group.
There is perhaps no better reflection of this divide between whites and blacks, as well as Hispanics and Asians, than in rates of home ownership.
Though rates increased in nearly all area communities and across racial lines during the 1990s, blacks and Hispanics still trail whites in this key barometer of prosperity.
Blacks in Palm Beach County are 33.5 percent less likely than white families to own the home in which they live, a gap that has closed 1.4 percent since 1990.
While 80.7 percent of white people in 2000 lived in owner-occupied homes, the rate was 47.2 percent for blacks, 56.9 percent for Hispanics and 65.5 percent for Asians.
“The majority of wealth is equity in a home for most Americans,” said Joe Feagin, a sociology professor at the University of Florida who studies race and discrimination, “which is why home ownership is so crucial.”
Feagin says there are both immediate and long-term implications: Having equity in a home might allow parents to borrow money to send their children to college. And a home represents wealth that can be passed on when the parents have passed away.
On the other hand, as is the case with so many black families, a lack of wealth inherited from the previous generation makes buying a home a considerable challenge.
That, in turn, hampers the prospects of the next generation, whose parents might not be able to afford an educational investment such as college and who will have little to leave behind for their children.
“Whites have been able for generations to pass along wealth to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren,” Feagin said. “And if I don’t have that equity, where do I get the money to send my kid to Harvard or the University of Florida?”
Like nearly all issues of race, it is impossible to consider this disparity between blacks and whites without mentioning the legacy of slavery and segregation.
Southern states are just three decades removed from segregation, which forced black families “to take the worst housing, the worst jobs with the lowest incomes in near-slavery conditions,” Feagin said.
“Many of the white people today who own homes grew up under this period of legal segregation when whites were privileged and blacks disprivileged,” Feagin said. “Black families were not able to build up wealth either for themselves to buy homes or to pass along to children to nearly the same degree whites were.”
Given the disparities in the housing that people of different races are generally able to afford, it should come as little surprise that whites, blacks and Hispanics in Palm Beach County still tend to live largely separated from one another.
An analysis by The Palm Beach Post of census data released this year shows that people still tend to live in neighborhoods in which their own race is dominant.
Employing a mathematical formula that sociologists commonly use, the Post’s analysis found, for example, that the neighborhood in which a typical white person in Palm Beach County lives is 80 percent white, 7.1 percent black and 10.4 percent Hispanic. Whites, however, comprise 70 percent of the county’s total population.
And though blacks make up less than 15 percent of the county’s population, they comprise about half the residents of the neighborhood in which an average black person lives.
OBSTACLES FOR KIDS
Just as housing statistics raise questions about racial equality, census figures show trends that worry some child advocates in the structure of black families.
Three out of four white children under 18 in Palm Beach County live in a household with both their parents, but the rate is 38.8 percent for black kids. Asian children are the most likely to live with both parents, about 82.3 percent, while the rate for Hispanic kids is 62.8 percent.
The obstacles kids face when growing up in a single-parent household are considerable. They are twice as likely to drop out of high school and 70 percent more likely to lack health insurance when compared with kids in two-parent households, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Just 8 percent of kids in married-couple homes live in poverty, but the rate is 42 percent for kids in single-parent families, the foundation found.
“To break the cycle of single-parenting, especially in impoverished communities, we have got to provide quality early care,” said Levine, of the Center for Florida’s Children. “The causes are the continuing remnants of race discrimination, lack of access to quality education, housing and other traditional examples of racist practices.”
Statistics on family structure show other trends defined largely along racial lines. For example, the size of the average white family in Palm Beach County is 2.7 people, but the average black or Hispanic family is nearly one member larger. The average Asian family has 3.4 members.
And while 10.9 percent of black children under 18 in Palm Beach County live in a household headed by one of their grandparents, the rate for Hispanic kids is 5.7 percent and 3.4 percent for whites. Just 2.3 percent of Asian kids live in grandparent-headed homes.
The figure doesn’t represent the true number of kids being raised by a grandparent, however.
Because the census links the relationship of everyone in a household to the person listed first on the form, the statistic fails to capture the many instances in which a child’s parent lives in the same grandparent-headed home.
The Census Bureau estimates that the grandchild’s parents are absent from only one-third of such households.
AGE DISTRIBUTION DIFFERS
The number of grandparent-headed homes with children in them is likely to increase as Florida becomes grayer. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2025, people 65 and older will comprise 26.3 percent of a state that will reach 21 million residents. In the same year, the bureau estimates, people under 20 years of age will account for 21.4 percent of the population.
But the effects of this shift might not be felt equally in all racial groups. A graph that shows the age distribution of the state’s white residents would follow a curve that peaks with people in their 40s. And given Florida’s popularity as a retirement destination, the curve would reach a second, smaller peak that reflects the large number of people in their early 70s.
A graph illustrating the age distribution of the state’s black residents, however, would tell a different story. Instead of peaking in middle age, the black curve reaches its summit in the pre- and early-teenage years. And once past middle age, the curve would take a sharp dive.
These age characteristics reflect the generally higher birth rate among blacks and their generally shorter life span, said Rose Li, chief for population and social processes at the National Institute on Aging.
What makes Florida’s age structure so worrisome to those in health care and social services is that the oldest Baby Boomers, a generation that casts a tall demographic shadow, are in their mid-50s. As they start to retire, and as present retirees reach the over-85 range, society will have to make important choices about spending on social services, said Bentley Lipscomb, state director of the senior citizen group AARP.
If not properly managed, those adjustments could come at the expense of those at the other end of the age spectrum.
“While we are home to four generations, we have only budgeted for three,” Levine said. “You don’t have to be a math whiz to know that four into three is a fraction. . . . Age warfare across the generational divide will be an unmitigated social disaster if that’s the choice our political leaders force upon us.”
Lipscomb agreed that the pot of money for services must expand to provide for both children and seniors.
“We’re not so poor in the state of Florida that we can’t afford to take care of both old people that need to be taken care of and children,” Lipscomb said. “Is there the will to do that? I don’t know.”
Copyright 2001 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
July 29, 2001 Sunday
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