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Race and ethnicity

We must turn the tide on inequality for all our children

A person's ethnicity can mean they're more likely to be locked in poverty than other people. It's the right thing to do to change our policies and systems to enable everyone to break free from poverty.

Written by:
Dr. Andrea Barry
Date published:
Reading time:
5 minutes

As an African American woman, I have personal experience with being black in the USA. I’ve lived in the UK for eight years, and unfortunately have had the 'privilege' of experiencing racism on both sides of the pond. My experience with structural racism in the USA shapes my view for the Black British experience. I am not Black British by ancestry, yet my African American ancestors share history and experiences with the Black British population in the UK. The vast racial inequities are relatively well known in the USA. I’ve had racial slurs thrown at me when walking down the street of a very progressive and liberal city. I’ve shown up to rent a flat but was turned away when magically the flat was rented out just minutes before I arrived. It was still being advertised three days after I was told it was no longer available. My high school, one of the best in the nation, openly tried to restrict high-achieving African American students into remedial classes. I am only 33 years old, and these experiences have lessened in, but not entirely left, American society over 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This is the environment in which I’ve grown up. I’ve learned about the racist housing policies pre and post WWII which trapped African American families in poor neighbourhoods, with poorly funded schools and little opportunity to escape poverty. I’ve experienced the lack of BAME representation in primary, secondary, and higher education in the US educational system. Although my parents would be considered middle class by profession if they were white, in the US we were considered part of the working poor.

The income and wealth inequalities by race are so stark in the United States that my mother as an accountant was earning at least 30% less than her white male counterparts. My father, an engineering estimator, was earning roughly 23% less than his white male counterparts (Current Population Survey). It’s important to understand how that permeates every aspect of a black household. That lost income is lost wealth: the inability to buy a home, provide a solid education for your children, and plan for your future. It increases the likelihood we’d fall into poverty if my father lost his job, and created large uncertainty in our lives. As a result, my parents have a smaller pension and fewer savings, and will retire at an older age than their white friends and colleagues with less money.

As a Senior Analyst at Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), and due to my PhD in Economics, I understand how important it is to support lived experiences with data analysis. According to JRF research, in 2017 almost 120,000 more Black/African/Caribbean people were in poverty than five years before (UK Poverty 2018). Also, like their counterparts in the USA, black people in the UK are more likely to live in poverty, earn less, receive lower university qualifications, and are less likely to own their own home (NUS and UK Poverty 2018). Although black people comprise roughly 3% of the UK population, their in-work poverty rate is 27.5%, compared to 12% for the rest of the population (HBAI, 2017/18). They have the lowest representation in academia, with only 0.6% of UK professors identifying as black. The earnings gap is largest for black people with a university degree, as they earn 23.1% less on average than white workers with degrees. They’re more likely to live in substandard housing than white people (27.5% to 20.9% respectively). As well, after the recession, there was a 12.7% increase in the number of black and Asian workers in low-paid jobs, compared to just a 2.8% increase for white workers (EHRC 2016). Like their American counterparts, every recession or economic downturn impacts them more, and the negative impact lasts longer.

My husband, who is white British, openly discusses the benefits he received from his parents, who were working class but managed to accumulate wealth through buying a home in London. The ability to accumulate wealth translated to lower university loans and a deposit for his first flat. Although most black British households are concentrated in urban areas like London, black British households are largely shut out from the opportunity to accumulate wealth through home ownership.

For me, discussing how to create a more inclusive poverty alleviating policy is incredibly personal. My daughter, with African American and white British ancestry, will experience racism not only in the USA but the UK. It’s not right that she may earn over 20% less than her colleagues and have a higher likelihood of living in poverty than her white cousins simply because of the colour of her skin. The UK became aware of how unequal society was for BAME members and enacted laws in the 1960s and 1970s to combat this experience. However, these laws have not eliminated structural racism.

It’s important to continue to explore and educate society on the ethnic inequalities with the experience of poverty, and how poverty alleviation policies must be intersectional to tackle the problem. People like my daughter have the right to live and work here in the UK and the USA without fear of discrimination and prejudice. It’s important to turn the tide on these inequities and start providing a better future for all our children, equally. If we’re to solve poverty in the United Kingdom, it’s essential to discuss the heightened experience of poverty by ethnicity in the UK.

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