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In Alabama’s Black Belt, a lasting legacy of racial disparities and deep poverty

In Alabama’s Black Belt, a lasting legacy of racial disparities and deep poverty

Picture of Anna Maria Barry-Jester

Looking through health statistics for the United States, there’s an area that almost always shows up in red: Alabama’s Black Belt. A stretch of fertile lands across the southern half of the state, it was one of the most brutal and wealthy parts of the country during the slavery era.

Home to Selma and Montgomery, it was again the center of attention during the civil rights movement, and after the notorious Tuskegee experiments became public. Earlier this year, one county in the area, Perry, had another brief moment in the national spotlight after it became public that an outbreak of tuberculosis had killed at least three people and infected more than 100 others. National reporters descended, trying to make sense of how such a seemingly arcane disease could have taken hold in the United States.

But Perry County is currently a standout for more than just this TB outbreak. According to the most recent census data, it also has the highest childhood poverty rate of any county in the United States — a full two-thirds of the children in Perry County live in families with incomes below the federal poverty limit. That’s up from 47 percent in 2010; the percentage has steadily increased over the past decade.

Poverty is high for all ages in Perry, but not for all races. The white poverty rate is 8.1 percent compared to 32.7 percent for blacks. This is similar to other counties in the Black Belt. In Alabama, African Americans have much higher rates of poverty in majority black counties than they do in counties where they make up a minority. The long-term effects of this poverty have been illustrated in recent research. Harvard’s Equality of Opportunity project recently looked at economic mobility based on where children grow up. According to the research, kids who grow up in Perry County will on average make $3,220, or 12 percent, less at age 26 than a poor child who grows up in an average county in the U.S. That’s worse than 95 percent of counties in the U.S.

In the Black Belt, race is a divider for health and economic statistics alike. For my 2016 National Fellowship project, I’ll explore the history of these disparities. I will be working with FiveThirtyEight.com and AL.com to dig deep into the science behind racial disparities in health, and how that science plays out in Alabama. Combining data and narrative, we will explore the legacy of racial and economic discrimination in the area, as well as the stories of community groups working to change the trends.

[Photo by Tanjheel Mahdi via Flickr.]

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