Prioritize the poor in Pittsburgh

This city is wonderful, but we must lift up all of our citizens


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I live in Pittsburgh, America's most livable city. I was born here, was married here and raised my four children here. I am a pastor, a professor and, for the last six years, I have been privileged to serve as a member of Pittsburgh City Council. I love this city and the people who live here.

Pittsburgh is a unique, vibrant, passionate and friendly place to live, work, play and worship. Recently our city has received numerous awards and much national recognition -- even our beloved Pirates made the playoffs this year!

But underneath all the glitter, all the black and gold, Pittsburgh has serious problems. Despite its successes, Pittsburgh is also a deeply divided city, one separated by race, gender, ethnicity, income and educational achievement.

Beltzhoover is entirely unlike Beechview; Larimer bears no resemblance to Lincoln Place; Hazelwood, Homewood and the Hill cannot be mistaken for Shadyside, Squirrel Hill or the South Side Flats. Pittsburgh's poor -- disproportionately black and female -- live in concentrated, isolated pockets of poverty in neighborhoods with substandard housing.

This divide between Pittsburgh's black and white, poor and rich, is a deadly disease that stunts our present and poisons our future.

* * *

Pittsburgh is one of the nation's least diverse regions in terms of race and ethnicity, which contributes to its slow population growth.

Harold Miller, adjunct professor of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University, points out that "the largest source of population growth in every region in the country has been racial and ethnic minorities -- particularly African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. But Pittsburgh has fewer minorities than every other major region in the country. The 2010 Census showed that only 13 percent of the residents of our region were non-white or Hispanic -- the smallest percentage of any of the top 40 regions in the country."

Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, believes "Pittsburgh's lack of diversity is actively hurting the region."

The living conditions of minorities in Pittsburgh makes attracting and retaining additional minority residents difficult. "African Americans in our region remain at the bottom of every measure of the quality of life, which include indicators of economic status, educational achievement, family stability and violence," according to a study conducted by Larry Davis and Ralph Bangs of the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems.

Most of the city's minority population is poor and living in low-income, substandard neighborhoods. Pittsburgh's racial and ethnic economic inequity is apparent and alarming.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pittsburgh region has the highest rate of poverty among working-age African Americans of any of the 40 largest metropolitan regions in the country.

More than one-quarter (28 percent) of the region's African Americans aged 18 to 64 lived in poverty in 2008. These poverty rates are the source of the African-American community's educational achievement gap, higher crime rates, poor health indicators, higher rates of drug addiction, greater percentage of single-parent households and deteriorated housing.

The solution to this problem will take a sustained, coordinated approach from multiple stakeholders, including government, schools, churches, nonprofits, the private sector and residents.

* * *

Next year, Pittsburgh will usher in a new mayor, who should lead the way by prioritizing diversity, empowering minority leaders and working to reduce economic inequality.

Our actions must create a narrative of inclusion that is reflected in our public policies and workforce. The incoming administration must diversify the city workforce proportionate to Pittsburgh's demographics, especially in the Department of Public Safety.

The city and its independent authorities must significantly invest in rebuilding Pittsburgh's low- and moderate-income communities. These communities have been the victims of decades of racism-driven disinvestment, intergenerational poverty, joblessness and hopelessness.

Finally, the city government must partner especially with schools, universities and the private sector to address the barriers that low- and moderate-income residents face when it comes to education, health, employment and prosperity.

Reducing inequality in Pittsburgh is an economic imperative. Improving the lives of those who live in low- and moderate-income communities would be an investment in the growth and prosperity of Pittsburgh as a whole.

It also is a moral imperative. As Pope John Paul II once said, "A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members."

Pittsburgh's incoming government will be judged on how it treats its poor women and minority residents.

Ricky Burgess is a member of Pittsburgh City Council and has been pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Homewood for 27 years.


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