Minority communities still face unacceptable barriers
In January, we touted America’s great strides toward equality and the reaffirmation of the American Dream in our tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Coincidentally, it was also the second inauguration of our nation’s first African-American president.
Though we have seemingly ventured light years away from slavery and segregation, this nation’s minority communities still face an unacceptable number of barriers in the realm of employment opportunity and education. We have a long way to go in order to achieve economic equality.
The challenges facing us at the state level – whether it be high unemployment, education cuts or the housing crisis – continue to drag down the most vulnerable of our communities in this time of struggle. The average unemployment rate for the black population increased to 17.6 percent in 2011 from 15.7 percent in 2010, according to the state Department of Labor and Training. The average unemployment rate in the Hispanic community in 2011 was 21.6 percent. These are numbers much higher than the rate in the overall community. To put it more into perspective, approximately 29,000 Hispanics and 13,700 African-Americans remained unemployed in Rhode Island in 2011. This is unacceptable.
The unemployment numbers have triggered an avalanche of related problems in the urban communities across Rhode Island, and people are still suffering despite a very slow recovery rate in this state. Those who were struggling before are struggling even more now. Workforce development programs need to accommodate people who require more hands-on training. The Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus (RILBLC) understands that in order to truly help the minority community, Rhode Island must pave the way for a diverse batch of career opportunities within reach of our eager constituents.
Imagine what one instance of misfortune could do to someone who has just seen a cut in his or her Rental Assistance Program (RAP) and transportation? Parents who want to feed and provide shelter for their families are unable to obtain jobs just to get by, but they are limited by an early night time deadline due to the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority’s (RIPTA) service hours. Rhode Island has also been one of the hardest-hit in home foreclosures, making it difficult for the minority community to get back on its feet.
Education and skills become the safety net for us all when we start to lose some of these necessities. At present, it’s a questionable one at best. According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, our last-recorded average high school dropout rate in this state was 12.5 percent in 2011, but our urban communities are bearing rates much higher than that. Rhode Island Kids Count, a children’s policy and advocacy organization, noted that “poverty is strongly linked to the likelihood of dropping out. Students in Rhode Island’s four core cities are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as students in the remainder of the state.” Allowing any youth to drop out is too many.
At a recent education forum at the State House, we were shocked to discover that third grade reading scores are used as an indicator in some states on the number of prisons that will be built. Evidence indicates that children who do not read by third grade are less likely to catch up and much more likely to drop out of school, take drugs or end up in prison.
The Black and Latino Community Partnership is dedicated to advocating for more preventative measures like early childhood learning, after school and summer programs. Part of its mission is to close the disparities between the minority and white communities. If we have learned anything from being squeezed by this recession, it is that the aforementioned programs are essential building blocks for local communities and for our state as a whole.
At the end of the day, we need to do a better job of taking care of Rhode Island’s urban centers, which in more ways than one provide invaluable assets to this state. After all, the people that are suffering are our future nurses and child care providers. They are our doctors, our lawyers, our scientists, our laborers and our law enforcement officers. Yet it is more difficult for this population to succeed because of the lack of real, thoughtful long-term investment in the areas like education, job training, housing, the economy and transportation in the places that need it the most. We promise to continue to work toward finding long-term sustainable solutions.
Rep. Williams is president of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus. She submitted this commentary for publication with Sen. Juan M. Pichardo, RILBLC vice president; Sen. Harold M. Metts, RILBLC secretary/chaplin; Rep. Grace Diaz, RILBLC treasurer; Speaker of the House Gordon D. Fox and
Rep. Joseph S. Almeida.