African Americans in Pittsburgh: The data in black & white

A recent regional survey shows marked disparities between races
Illustration by Dan Marsula African Americans in Pittsburgh: The data in black & white
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Some 1,800 Greater Pittsburgh men and women spent a half hour on the phone late last year answering an expansive battery of questions about themselves, their circumstances, and views on everything from how tax dollars should be spent to how happy they are. It was, by any standard, the most ambitious attempt in more than a century to learn who we are as a people and a region. Just as impressive is how inclusive the Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey was designed to be. Rather than settle for a homogeneous profile of the local populace, researchers oversampled African Americans to get a statistically valid glimpse of the region through the lens of race.

It’s heartening to report that what residents have in common outweighs what divides them, even when race is considered. Yet in several cases, the survey reveals sharp differences in both their circumstances and their perspectives. A serious homeownership gap exists between races. The difference in unemployment rates is more of a chasm than a gap. Reliance on public bus and rail transportation varies widely by race. And there are pronounced differences of opinion among races on the quality of life the region offers, the safety of their neighborhoods and schools, how best to spend public funds, and the state of race relations within their communities.

African Americans accounted for more than 20 percent of those who participated in the 120-​question survey the University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research conducted in collaboration with the Regional Indicators project, Pitts​burghTO​DAY​.org. The remaining residents of other races were predominantly white. They all live in the seven-​county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) or in the 25 Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia counties that surround it, though the largest numbers are concentrated in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh. To what extent do Greater Pittsburgh residents have trouble paying their monthly bills? How do they get to work? Do they avoid seeing a doctor because they can’t afford to? Do they think funding for their public school is adequate? How would they rate their community as a place to live? Do they vote? The answers to such questions often depend on the race of those asked.

Making ends meet

Nowhere is the racial divide more apparent than in household income and the ability to make ends meet. Take unemployment, for example. The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey provides an opportunity to get a firmer reading of unemployment by race in the region than is possible with U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Labor estimates simply because of the survey’s larger regional sample of African Americans. Unfortunately, it confirms the grim conclusions long suggested by other estimates: African Americans can expect to be unemployed at a rate roughly twice that of other races.

The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey data show that the non-​seasonably adjusted jobless rate among African Americans living in the Pittsburgh MSA stood at 14.1 percent over the three months in late 2011 when the survey was conducted. The jobless rate among residents of other races was 6.7 percent. Nationally, the overall non-​seasonally adjusted unemployment rate estimated by the U.S. Census and Labor bureaus over the same period was 7.4 percent.

Household income is another example. More African Americans report earnings in the lower income brackets than other races do, and fewer African Americans in the region are earning enough to place them in the highest brackets. More than 36 percent earn less than $25,000 a year, an income level found among just over 19 percent of other races. More than 75 percent of African Americans earn less than $50,000 compared to 49 percent of other races. On the upper end of the income scale, only 1 in 4 African Americans earn $50,000 or more — far fewer than residents of other races, more than half of whom report such incomes.

Given such disparities, it’s not surprising that racial differences are also pronounced when financial hardship is examined. Nearly 18 percent of African Americans in the region say they often or always have trouble paying their monthly rent or mortgage, utilities and other bills for basic necessities. That’s more than twice the hardship rate that residents of other races report.

The survey data are not all grim for African Americans. They, more than any other race, say their financial situation has improved over the past three years. Moreover, two-​thirds of African Americans believe their household finances will get much or somewhat better in the coming years, which is more than twice the rate of other residents who see better days ahead.

Government matters

Race also matters in how Greater Pittsburgh residents view public spending. Across the region, much higher percentages of African Americans favor spending more for human services, police protection, education, economic development, and parks and recreation than other races.

The gap, in many cases, is wide. African Americans are by far the most supportive when it comes to spending more on public education. About 89 percent support taking such steps, while only half of residents of other races favor greater education spending. More than two-​thirds of African Americans also favor spending more on human services ranging from child welfare to aid for the disabled. The rate of support for such services among other races is half of that.

Whether they express such views at the ballot box is another matter. Significantly fewer African Americans report voting in every election, though they are less likely than other races not to vote at all.

Educating their children

Greater Pittsburgh residents share an overall satisfaction with the quality of the education their children receive. Across all races, at least 8-​in-​10 rate the quality of education offered in the local schools as good, very good or excellent. The similarities pretty much end there.

African Americans, for instance, are more likely to describe the financial resources available to support those schools as inadequate. In the survey, they did so at a rate twice that of other races. Whether residents consider their local schools to be a safe haven for students is another issue in which opinions are markedly divided. Fewer than 15 percent of African Americans think of their schools as “very safe” — a rating that more than half of residents of other races award their schools.

The survey also underscores the importance of day care to the region’s African American community. More than half of African American parents surveyed say their children regularly attend day care compared to 30 percent of other parents. Their dilemma, however, is finding a quality program in which to enroll their children. While that’s a problem for than two-​thirds of African American parents, it isn’t for nearly 60 percent of parents of other races.

Another characteristic of the region is that support for teaching the arts in the public schools is strong and has no apparent geographic or racial boundaries. African Americans are clearly the most supportive, however, with 8-​in-​10 describing the arts as either an extremely or very important part of a public school curriculum.

In sickness and in health

Despite an impressive health care infrastructure, the overall health of the region’s residents is not one of its strong suits. Their obesity rate is among the highest in the nation and is rising. Diabetes is increasing as well. The number of smokers has fallen recently, but the Pittsburgh MSA still finds itself in the middle of the pack in national rankings.

More than 75 percent of African Americans rate their health as good, very good or excellent. But 1-​in-​4 rate their health as fair or poor compared to about 1-​in-​5 residents of other races who give their health the lowest ratings. On the other hand, African Americans are less likely than whites and other races to report high levels of stress, but not by a wide margin.

African Americans are also less likely to have health insurance. Nearly 16 percent report not having some type of public or private health coverage, which is something fewer than 10 percent of residents of other races live without. And African Americans are much more likely to forego care due to cost. More than 19 percent say that, at least once, they needed to see a doctor during the previous year but didn’t make an appointment because they couldn’t afford the visit.

The home ownership gap

Owning a home is an aspiration of most and considered by many to be a fundamental part of the American Dream. When looking at who in Greater Pittsburgh achieves that milestone, race is clearly a factor.

The gap in homeownership among the races is wide. About 41 percent of African Americans report living in a home they or a family member own — about half the homeownership rate that whites and residents of other races report. And self-​reported African American homeownership rates are low regardless of where in the region they live. In the city of Pittsburgh, for example, only 36 percent own their home. In Allegheny County, their homeownership rate is 38.5 percent.

Moreover, African Americans are more likely to give low ratings to the structural condition of the houses or apartments they live in, as well as homes and buildings in their neighborhood. For example, the majority of residents of all races say their homes are in good shape. But 22 percent of African Americans rate the condition of their homes as only fair or poor, while fewer than 10 percent of other races give their homes such low marks.

About the neighbors

The majority of Greater Pittsburgh residents describe their neighbors as friendly and willing to help one another. But, in some cases, opinions differ according to race. African Americans, for example, are more likely to be skeptical about the willingness of their neighbors to help others. Nearly 19 percent somewhat or strongly disagreed that their neighbors are willing to help fellow neighbors — about twice the rate of residents of other races who had the same view of those who live in their neighborhood.

African Americans are also more likely to live in racially diverse neighborhoods and to consider race relations a problem in their community, the survey data suggest. More than 26 percent of African American residents describe race relations in their community as a severe or moderate problem — more than twice the rate of residents of other races who report similar problems.

Crime & punishment

One of the characteristics of Pittsburgh and the surrounding area that helps boost its well-​publicized image as one of the most livable places in the country is a crime rate that’s been consistently lower than most large metropolitan regions. The majority of its residents, regardless of their race, tend to agree that their neighborhoods are safe. But the survey finds demographic differences on crime and police protection that in many cases are significant.

Younger residents and African Americans are among the groups most likely to feel there is more crime in their neighborhoods. African Americans, for example, are twice as likely to see their neighborhood as having higher crime rates. Still, nearly 51 percent feel their neighborhoods are safer than others. African Americans are also more than twice as likely than residents of other races to give police low marks for keeping them safe.

Most residents report not having been a victim of crime in the previous year. And there is little difference among races in the reported rate of property crime. It’s when violent crime is considered that marked racial differences are seen. Nearly 5.5 percent of African Americans report having been a victim of a violent crime in the past year. That’s more than 1-​in-​20, which means they are almost three times more likely to be a victim of violence than other residents.

Getting around town

Public transportation usage and whether residents have concerns about bus and rail service is highly influenced by race, age and where people live. African Americans, younger residents and city of Pittsburgh residents are among those who rely on public transportation the most. They are also the most likely to report access to be a problem.

More than 37 percent of African Americans throughout the region say they use some means of public transportation at least once a week, while only 8 percent of other residents report doing so. And in the city of Pittsburgh, where public transportation is most heavily used, 3-​in-​4 African Americans rate the availability of public transit as either a severe or moderate problem.

The survey also illustrates just how important public transit is to African American workers. Nearly 1-​in-​3 say they rely on it to get to work while only 4 percent of workers of other races use bus or rail services to get to their jobs. Instead, 85 percent of white workers rely on their own cars or trucks, which only 56 percent of African Americans say they use to get to and from work.

The quality of life

The survey finds wide satisfaction among residents with the quality of life the region offers them. But race plays a role in how enthusiastically they rate it. White residents, for instance, are twice as likely to describe the quality of life as excellent or very good than African Americans in the region.

Happiness is another indicator of quality of life. Attempts have been made to compare the happiness of nations around the world since 1981 as part of the World Values Survey, a global research project conducted by an international network of social scientists. University of Pittsburgh researchers tried as well, asking residents of the Greater Pittsburgh region to rate their happiness on a scale 1 to 10 with “very unhappy” rating a 1 and “very happy” rating a 10. They found the region’s residents to be a happy lot, regardless of race — and significantly happier than the rest of the nation as reported in 20052009 World Values Survey. That is not to say race isn’t a factor. White residents tend to be a bit happier. But, with a mean happiness rating of 7.62, African Americans in the region are still much happier than the nation as a whole.

The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey report is available on the PittsburghTODAY website, in the special reports section: pitts​burghto​day​.org/​s​p​e​c​i​a​l​_​r​e​p​o​r​t​s​.​h​t​m​l. The complete set of data tables, including those showing racial differences, can also be found online at pitts​burghto​day​.org/​s​p​e​c​i​a​l​r​e​p​o​r​t​s​_​q​o​l​_​d​a​t​a tables.html.

Jeffery Fraser

Jeffery is a Pittsburgh-​based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Quarterly. In his past life, he was a reporter and editor for newpapers large and small, only one of which is still in business. His magazine and newspaper reporting has won numerous awards.

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