Breaking the Generational Curse: The History of Poverty in Black Detroit  


*The Michigan Chronicle is discussing generational poverty in Detroit, and its history at large in America, in this four-part series during Black History Month. Stay tuned for the second and subsequent parts to learn about poverty in Detroit, its impact on families, finances, business barriers, gentrification and how we move forward.



When poverty transcends generations of Black families and seeps into every facet of life, what solutions could be found to break its devastating cyclical impact?


Kofi Kenyatta, director of Policy and Practice at non-profit Family Independence Initiative (FIL-National), has some ideas. He said that to have a meaningful conversation about generational poverty in the Black community, people must first understand wealth and the root causes of the racial wealth gap in America.

Kofi Kenyatta, director of Policy and Practice at non-profit Family Independence Initiative (FIL-National) Photo provided by Kofi Kenyatta 

“Wealth is the measure of an individual’s or household’s net worth, and a key indicator of economic well-being. Wealth allows people to pay their bills when income stops coming in,” he told The Michigan Chronicle. “Wealth provides the capital to start a business, study abroad or leave school debt-free. Wealth pays for expensive medical procedures, transitions between jobs and the ability to withstand emergencies. Wealth is also passed down between generations.”


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 40 million people in America live in poverty. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, in 2019, the poverty rate for the United States was at 10.5 percent, the lowest since 1959. COVID-19 has no doubt changed those statistics. The poverty rate has shown that from 1959 to 2019 Blacks and Hispanics have outpaced other races in poverty levels.


Kenyatta said that it is crucially important to make the connection between the historical denial of wealth-generating opportunities for African Americans and the prevalence of poverty in the Black community.


“Since America’s inception, enslaved Africans and their descendants have been violently denied access to opportunities, resources and, frankly, the freedom to be left the hell alone,” he said, adding that some studies estimate that over $14 trillion in today’s dollars were extracted from enslaved Africans during American chattel slavery.


“Unfortunately, the 246 years of slavery was just the beginning of the wealth extraction. The brutality of slavery was replaced by sharecropping, convict leasing, black codes, Jim Crow laws, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, education funding inequities, mass incarceration, redlining and hundreds of other policies and practices that stifled economic mobility for Black Americans.”


Kenyatta added that from having policies that roadblock economic progress for African Americans to the acceleration of wealth for white Americans it has culminated into the present- day wealth gap where African Americans have approximately one-tenth the wealth of white Americans.


The Road to Zero Wealth report published by Prosperity Now and the Institute for Policy Studies states that the median wealth of black Americans will fall to zero by 2053 if things continue as they are, he said.


“The lack of wealth decreases the chances of sustained economic mobility across generations. Even if incomes rise, the racial wealth gap leaves many African Americans in a vicious cycle of economic struggle,” he added. “African Americans have always had to swim upstream in the shark-infested waters we call America. Presently and throughout history we have created our own opportunities and overcome the constant roadblocks put in our way by a country and society we have given everything to. However, our ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds should not deter us from demanding systemic redress for the systemic issues caused by systemic racism.


“The barriers to African American economic mobility at scale do not lay at the feet of the individual. These barriers are structural in nature and demand structural remedies.”

To address generational poverty in the Black community, structural roots must be

addressed he added.


“We must work to end resource deprivation and begin direct cash investments for people,” Kenyatta said. “We must secure proper and adequate forms of reparations, including cash. We must demand an end to all forms of discrimination and denial of opportunity that are littered throughout every facet of American society. We must demand living wages and mechanisms for the acceleration of economic mobility. Lastly, a racial equity lens must be applied to every conversation centering [on] poverty alleviation and economic mobility.”


Kristin Seefeldt, associate faculty director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, has done much work with families in Detroit, and her book, “Abandoned Families,” explores the ways various institutions are failing low- and moderate-income families, particularly families of color.


Seefeldt said that the issue of poverty needs to be centered within what public policies should be doing to help families in need.


“I try to talk about social policy as benefitting everybody — even if a policy like food stamps is directed to households of certain income, we all benefit as a society making sure everyone has enough food to eat,” she said. “We benefit when people are able to put money into the economy to buy food.”


Seefeldt added that poverty that persists throughout generations is a “failure of policy.”


“A lot of the reasons that we see that it is economic mobility isn’t what we’d like it to be because of policy — longstanding efforts to keep maintained residential segregation,” she said, adding that when the whole community doesn’t have economic resources to support schools, robust transportations systems or stable employment, poverty is bound to happen.


Redlining, refusing someone a loan because they live in a poor-financial risk area, still occurs today, she said.


“I think it still happens today, although we now put in place a policy that would help mitigate this — Detroiters end up paying much more in property taxes relative to what folks who reside in suburban communities would pay given comparable values of their property,” she said, adding that these issues could be fixed with sound policy tackling economic and racial justice and not devaluing certain neighborhoods. “Policies that would lead to more equitable funding of our school systems and make investments in the areas where we have for decades not put in the resources that children really need to thrive.


“Families are doing what they need to do — we’ve legislatively put up a lot of roadblocks in folks’ faces.”



From the Web