The high cost of living while black
The fact that black men are nine times more likely to die at the hands of the police than other Americans is a reality that is one of the driving forces behind the Black Lives Matter movement. In the harsh light of the numbers, black life’s precariousness is thrown into sharp relief. But in the shadows are other facts about what it costs to be African American in American culture, regardless of class status. To be black in America means that life is more expensive, literally, while cultural representations of black life show it to be valued more cheaply by a majority culture steeped in its white privilege.
Of course, it is difficult to keep up with the cost of living if you do not have a job with which to pay your bills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in November, 2015, the rate of unemployment for black men was 12.2 percent; for white men, that rate was 5.4 percent. The rate of black male unemployment is 230 percent higher than that for white males. The overall rate of white unemployment is 5.3; the black rate is 11.3, lower only because black women are unemployed at a rate of 10.5 percent.
If a black person is employed, however, that still doesn’t create economic parity between black and white peers. The Department of Commerce released census statistics that revealed the following information about income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States. If you are black, you have a greater chance of living in poverty than your white counterpart. In 2012, the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites was 9.7 percent, whereas 27.2 percent of African Americans lived in poverty. While whites comprise 40.7 percent of the total number of people living in poverty, at current, non-Hispanic white people are 62.8 percent of the total population. In other words, while there are many more whites than blacks who are poor, but non-Hispanic whites have a one-in-ten chance of living in poverty; for blacks, your chances of living in poverty are one-in-four.
And, “poverty” here is defined by the official government “threshold” for what constitutes poverty. In 2012, the poverty “guideline” set by the Census Bureau was, for one person, an income of $930.83 per month or $11,170 annually. For a family of four, that income level was $1920.83 per month or $23,050 annually. (To give some perspective on the purchasing power of that income, in 2012, the average cost of a studio apartment in Brooklyn was $1,700 per month. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, full-time, will earn you $1160 per month before deductions.)
For those who are above the poverty line, however, there is still not income parity between non-Hispanic whites and African Americans. That census report put together in 2012 showed that the median income for white non-Hispanic families was $57,009. For a black family, the median income was $33,321, which means that median white families earn 171 percent more than their black contemporaries.
But it’s not just whether one is employed and whether one is making more than poverty-level wages that determine costs of living. Another factor is what things cost, and it turns out that black people pay more for everyday expenses than white people do. Turns out, “driving while black” is not just the phenomenon of getting randomly pulled over by police for driving infractions with the only commonality being that the driver is black. If you live in a zip code that “codes black”, car insurance rates will be higher. The Consumer Federation of America issued a report (and a call for action) that showed that insurance premiums are not just subject to whether the driver is a male between the ages of 16 and 24, or someone with dangerous driving infractions on her record: “premiums were on average 70 percent higher for residents of mostly black communities” as evidenced by an analysis of quotes from the five largest insurance groups: Geico, Allstate, Farmers, Progressive, and State Farm.
The insurance zip code issue was not one of discrimination based on companies punishing residents of poor urban neighborhoods. “[T]he CFA … controlled for income and still found that substantial differences in price based on race alone … it was in mostly black upper-middle-class zip codes [where] drivers paid … nearly three times as much as a driver from a white-heavy town and with a similar income,” according to The Atlantic.
Buying car insurance implies that one has a car. In February, 2016, Toyota settled with the government to compensate black and Hispanic consumers who had been charged more for their cars and had been given less favorable terms on auto loans. In the previous year, the government had punished both the General Motors corporation and Honda for similar practices. When buying a car, dealerships charged African Americans higher prices for cars. Black homebuyers also pay more for houses.
If you are unable to afford to buy a house, you must join the legion of renters. Before the publication of his brilliant Evicted, Matthew Desmond began publishing the results of his research in various sociological journals, research which showed that the percentage of monthly income that low-income households were spending on rent and basic utilities was over 70 percent for nearly one-quarter of poor renting families. The cost of utilities and the cost of rent have outpaced rises in median income. Federal housing programs that extend rent subsidies to poor families have shrunk. “In 2013, one in eight poor renting families in America could not pay all of their rent…” Desmond reported. And the inability to pay rent leads to eviction.
“Low-income women, especially poor black women, are at high risk of eviction. Women living in black neighborhoods in Milwaukee represent 9.6 percent of the population, but 30 percent of evictions. Among renters, over one in five black women report having been evicted sometime in their adult life. The same is true for roughly one in twelve Hispanic women, and one in fifteen white women. If incarceration has become typical in the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction has become typical in the lives of women from these neighborhoods.”
Living in a primarily black neighborhood also means that groceries are going to cost more. “Food deserts,” — those areas where there are no supermarkets or access to fresh produce, defined as being more than one mile away — occur much more frequently in neighborhoods where the preponderance of residents are non-white. In fact, low income areas have thirty percent more convenience stores than more affluent areas. Most convenience stores do not carry foods that are associated with health. Their prices are also higher than those of local supermarkets, meaning that people dependent on convenience stores pay more for inferior food. Produce is harder to come by. Given the poor state of public transportation, many poor people find themselves without access to transportation to the types of supermarkets where their food dollars can stretch further and their choices are greater. And while American rates of obesity do not suggest that simple access to produce guarantees healthy choices, produce consumption rises 32 percent among African Americans when a grocery store is in the neighborhood.
Even black hipsters with money do not have an easier time. In the “sharing economy” as exemplified by AirBnB, black renters are 16 percent more likely to be actively discriminated against than white housing seekers. The research that documented this discrimination found that the AirBnB landlords who discriminated made decisions based on race, not on the economic class of the potential guests, thus applying the discrimination across the economic spectrum of those African American guests seeking accommodations.
There are other forms of racial discrimination that have an impact on African Americans: health care decisions and diagnoses by doctors are affected based on the race of their patients; a history of “red lining” has meant historically that banks have refused to issue mortgages in traditionally black neighborhoods; “covenants” existed in neighborhoods that prevented homeowners from selling to black homebuyers; and the history of discrimination against black voters continues with the resurgence of Voter ID laws promulgated by states where conservatives seek retention of their power. Many Americans are aware of these forms of discrimination.
It is rare, however, to acknowledge that the literal cost of living while black is higher than it is for white Americans. The next time a white person tells you that they do not have any “privilege,” that no one has ever done them any favor because of their melanin deficiency, a few of these facts about the cost of living while black may help to put things in perspective.