Friday, May 11, 2012

Widening inequality in Boston and beyond

RAISING AWARENESS: From left, Seamans, Washington and Kahn

“Some of these numbers may surprise you, because we tend to think of ourselves as very successful as a region and as a nation,” said Charlotte Kahn, co-founder and director of the Boston Indicators Project. Kahn revealed some unsettling local statistics – including that Suffolk County is among the top 50 most unequal counties in the nation – in her presentation, “Widening Income Inequality and its Effects on Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Boston and Beyond,” April 27 in the Ether Dome.

The lecture was held in honor of the YWCA’s National Stand Against Racism Day, created in 2007 to raise awareness that racism still exists. “We’re proud to be a participating site in 2012,” said Deborah Washington, RN, director of MGH Diversity for Patient Care Services, who welcomed attendees alongside Larry Seamans, senior vice president and chief operating officer of YWCA Boston. “MGH has a longstanding commitment to diversity and what that means as an employer, a health care provider and member of the community.”

Funded and coordinated by the Boston Foundation, the Boston Indicators Project collects, analyzes and publicizes data in 10 subjects – ranging from economics to health – for Boston, its neighborhoods and the surrounding region. The project published its first report more than 10 years ago; its most recent one was released March 14.

In her presentation, which highlighted trends identified by the reports, Kahn compared a period from 1947 to 1979, when national prosperity was shared and incomes were more equal, with the last three decades, when despite sharply increasing worker productivity, average wages stalled while the incomes of those at the top continued to grow. During this time, individual debt ballooned in response to increased college, housing and health care costs.

Today, U.S. incomes are extremely unequal. In Boston, the top 5 percent of earners account for 25 percent of aggregate annual income, while the bottom 20 percent account for 2.2 percent. “These trends have cut into household budgets, making it very difficult for the average person to get ahead,” said Kahn. “The United States is almost off the charts among all wealthy, developed nations in terms of income inequality and a lack of intergenerational mobility.” According to Kahn, this inequality is often reflected racially.

In Boston, the per capita income of white residents is two to three times higher than of residents of color, largely because income – and unemployment – are closely tied to education. Massachusetts ranks No. 1 on certain national standardized tests for eighth graders, but within that group, black and Latino students score at the lowest end of the scale. Similarly, the percent of Boston’s black and Latino adults with a bachelor of arts degree has increased marginally over the past three decades compared with dramatic increases among white and Asian residents.

Kahn pointed to a series of maps to show the correlation between race, inequality and geography in Greater Boston, emphasizing the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, where education attainment is lowest and levels of poverty are highest. These same neighborhoods also are disproportionately affected by rising rates of preventable hypertension and diabetes hospitalization as well as the highest rates of violent crime.

“If we allow these trends to continue, we are going to plow under as a nation,” she said.

Moving ahead, Kahn said, eliminating disparities in education is key. She challenged attendees to try to reduce health care costs, which are crowding out investments in education, and encouraged them to put more emphasis on community-wide preventive strategies. “Healthy people mean a healthy economy,” she concluded.

The event was sponsored by the MGH Center for Community Health Improvement, the Department of Emergency Medicine, the Disparities Solutions Center, the Multicultural Affairs Office and Patient Care Services Diversity. To read Boston Indicators Project reports, visit

Read more articles from the 5/11/12 Hotline issue.


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