Two Iowa metros on list of ten "worst cities for black Americans"

The Des Moines metro area has made plenty of “best places” lists during the last five years, but Chamber of Commerce types won’t be bragging about the top ten ranking that appeared last week. After examining “the disparities between white and black Americans in several economic and social measures” across the country, Thomas C. Frohlich and Sam Stebbins of the 24/7 Wall St. website “identified the 10 worst cities for black Americans.” The authors noted, “Four of the cities with the worst racial inequality are in Illinois, two are in Iowa, and all are in the Midwest.”

Follow me after the jump to learn why the Des Moines metro area ranked ninth and the Waterloo/Cedar Falls metro area tenth on this list.

Frohlich and Stebbins explained their methodology here. They were most interested in “gaps between black and white Americans,” not absolute levels of poverty, unemployment, and so on. They drew on hard data sets, not anecdotes or personal impressions.

To construct the index, we used 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau on median household income, poverty, high school and bachelor’s educational attainment rates, homeownership rates, and unemployment rates. Data on incarceration rates came from The Sentencing Project and are for the most recent available year. Because states, rather than metro areas, are responsible for the prison population, incarceration rates are for the state where the metro area is located. If a metro area spanned more than one state, we used the state in which the metro area’s principal city is located. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we used age-adjusted mortality rates by race for each county in the U.S. from 2009-2013 to calculate mortality rates at the metro level using a variation on the indirect standardization method. Incarceration and mortality rates are per 100,000 residents.

The authors excluded cities where fewer than 5 percent of residents are black. They tended to find the worst racial inequality in cities with “relatively small black populations.” Frohlich and Stebbins spoke to Valerie Wilson, director of the program on race, ethnicity, and the economy at the Economic Policy Institute.

Wilson explained that in cities with smaller minority populations, African Americans can actually suffer more at the hands of structural racism than in cities with larger black populations. The smaller group is almost always easier to exclude.

Areas with smaller black populations still have higher incarceration rates among black residents, Wilson added. This means the disproportionate incarceration, particularly among black males, “is going to affect an even larger percentage of the population there, even though the population itself isn’t as large as it is in some other places,” she explained.

Iowa has long been one of the worst states for racial disparities in arrests and incarcerations. Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady made the problem a major theme in his speech to state legislators this year. In August, Governor Terry Branstad formed a working group on criminal justice reform, which is charged with addressing racial disparities, among other issues, and includes a representative of the NAACP. The working group will make recommendations by early November so that state lawmakers can consider relevant policy changes during the 2016 session. Legislators from both parties attended the Iowa Criminal Justice Summit in Cedar Falls on October 1. Kathy Bolten reported for the Des Moines Register,

About two dozen speakers spoke about reforming Iowa’s criminal justice system so that fewer people are incarcerated, including minorities, and finding ways to make re-entry to society easier for those who had been imprisoned. […]

Iowa state Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, spent much of the past year helping organize the summit. She said the criminal justice system in Iowa – and the nation – has many inequalities, and changes are needed. Among the people who can help make the changes are those who pass laws at the state and national level, she said.

One thing Miller said she plans to address in the next legislative session is the inability of people who have been incarcerated to get professional licenses. “How can people get on with their lives if they can’t work?” she asked.

[Democratic State Representative Mary] Wolfe also has plans to push for legislation next session: reducing the mandatory minimum sentences for some robbery charges, something the state’s Public Safety Advisory Board has recommended, but it has not been passed, she said.

“A higher percentage of African-Americans are serving a mandatory minimum prison sentence for robbery than any other crime,” Wolfe said. “Mandatory minimums do not make the state safer.”

I sincerely hope the Iowa House and Senate will approve criminal justice reform next year, and that Congress will move forward with similar reforms at the federal level. An election year doesn’t strike me as a promising time for politicians to pass bills that could be misleadingly spun as “soft on crime,” though.

Branstad could eliminate one huge disparity in a day by rescinding his 2011 executive order disenfranchising most felons. That order “made Iowa one of the most difficult states in the nation for felons who want to vote,” disproportionately affecting black people.

The racial disparity in Iowa’s incarceration rate is shameful enough, but unfortunately, it’s far from the only reason two of our state’s metro areas landed on the 24/7 Wall St. list.

In the Des Moines/West Des Moines metro area, black residents make up about 5 percent of the population, and “racial disparities are indeed especially pervasive,” Frohlich and Stubbins found.

Just 33% of black households are owned by their occupants, for example, versus the homeownership rate of 72.2% among white families. Also, while 38.0% of white adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, 20.5% of black area adults have the equivalent education.

Despite the difficulties facing Des Moines black communities, the area’s black unemployment rate of 10.6% was lower than the national black jobless rate of 13.2% – one of only three of the 10 worst cities for African Americans with a black unemployment rate not exceeding the national rate. Still, the black jobless rate was several times higher than the 4.2% jobless rate among white residents, itself one of the lowest in the country.

Economic indicators also secured the tenth spot on the “worst cities” list for Waterloo/Cedar Falls, where approximately 7 percent of the population is black.

the median income for black households was equal to less than 56% of income for a typical white household, which at $54,802 was slightly lower than the national median but still higher than in most metro areas.

While the Waterloo area labor market is relatively strong overall, black residents clearly do not have the same job opportunities as their white peers. The unemployment rate among black residents of 24% – the sixth highest among black city-populations – is in stark contrast with the white unemployment rate of just 3.9% – one of the lowest such rates.

There’s no magic solution to such problems, but local and state-level policymakers should be thinking about ways to provide racial minorities with better access to housing and employment opportunities. Any suggestions are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Kathy Bolten reported for the Sunday Des Moines Register on the lack of minority officers in Iowa law enforcement agencies. Excerpts:

owa doesn’t keep data on the racial and gender makeup of the state’s more than 350 law enforcement agencies. But a Des Moines Register review of 30 Iowa agencies illustrates the stark lack of minority officers – even in the state’s most diverse cities.


•  None of the 382 troopers with the Iowa State Patrol, the state’s largest law enforcement agency, is black or Asian, and only five are Hispanic. In contrast, Iowa has more than 245,000 minority residents, about 8 percent of the population.

•  The Waterloo Police Department has only one Hispanic, two black and two Asian officers among its 122-member force, in a city that is 23 percent minority.

•  Likewise, the Storm Lake Police Department has one minority among its 19 officers, in a community where nearly one-third of the residents are racially diverse. Last week, the department hired a Hispanic officer.

•  Even Iowa’s most diverse forces fail to reflect their communities.

In Des Moines, 11 percent of the police department’s 369 officers are people of color, compared with 23 percent of the population. In Cedar Rapids, 5 percent of the police department’s officers are black, Asian or Hispanic, in a city where 12 percent of residents are minorities.

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