In 1974 a handful of leaders in Fort Dodge’s strongly black Pleasant Valley neighborhood wanted the city to do something to help strengthen that neighborhood, especially for young black kids growing up. A community center could help, they suggested, though none was established at the time.
A few years later, though, the city built a nine-hole golf course along the Des Moines River and next to Pleasant Valley. Low-income and black residents in the neighborhood were not quick to hit the links.
The purpose for bringing this up is not to reopen an old wound but, rather, to set the stage for what is happening now in Fort Dodge, where 5.5 percent of the city’s 24,751 residents are black and 5 percent are Latino.
Since 2004, youths in Fort Dodge have had opportunities to learn life skills, starting with reading, at the Calvary Family Center in Pleasant Valley. Meanwhile, Athletics for Education and Success, on the northwest side of town, has sports camps and clinics that promote school, drug awareness and avoiding violence.
The programs are drawing youths of all colors, whites included, Joe Sutter, of the Fort Dodge Messenger, reports in a large reporting project called Iowa’s Opportunity Gap that is led by IowaWatch and of which The Messenger is a participant.
The results could lead you to believe that we have come a long way closing the opportunity gap for education, jobs, income and home ownership that exists among white, black and Latino Iowans. You would be wrong, though.
Hard facts reported by IowaWatch, The Messenger, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, The Hawk Eye in Burlington and the West Liberty Index to explore this gap show that black and Latino Iowans have lost ground over the last 50 years. That may surprise a lot of Iowans, although few of those surprised would be black or Latino.
The median family income for white Iowans has increased from $5,050 in 1960 – yes, that was a lot of money back then – to $62,423 in 2010, census data show. The median family income for black Iowans has risen in that same time from $4,350 to $26,760; for Latinos from $6,550 to $38,030.
The 2010 median family income for white Iowans was up 28 percent from when the 2000 census was taken. It was up 13 percent for Latinos. For black Iowans, however, the median family income dropped almost 5 percent from 2000 to 2010, the census data show.
Not surprisingly, the number of white Iowans owning homes outpaces those for blacks and Latinos, which has been the case in every census from 1960 through 2010. The measure of disparity, though, is that the gap has widened during those 50 years.
In the 1960 census, 69 percent of white Iowans, 56 percent of black Iowans and 53 percent of Latino Iowans said they owned a home. In the 2010 census, 74 percent of whites said they owned a home but only 31 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Latinos could say the same.
Several factors are behind the gaps, which exist in the poverty rate and high school and college graduation rates as well, the news organizations’ reporting project revealed. They run the gamut from racial attitudes to stressed government, community and social programming to language and cultural barriers to taking personal responsibility.
A strong argument can be made that the gaps negatively affect Iowa’s cultural and economic growth. They result in difficulty recruiting good workers of any race into the state, classroom struggles, financial demands on government and social programs, cultural suspicions about other cultures, perceptions and the tensions that result.
Whenever you have nine of every 10 white people graduating from high school but eight of every 10 black Iowans and six of every 10 Latinos graduating, a problem exists. Yet, that is what the 2010 census shows happening in Iowa.
Community leaders at places like the Calvary Family Center and Athletes for Education and Services in Fort Dodge realize that as they focus on youths, trying to develop attitudes that arm a new generation of problem solvers. Iowa needs problem solvers. No one wins with these kinds of gaps among fellow Iowans.
And Pleasant Valley’s golf course? The city closed it last year because hardly anyone was using it.
This commentary was published as a guest opinion in The Hawk Eye (Burlington), The Gazette (Cedar Rapids) and Fort Dodge Messenger.