EU Professor does further research on African Americans living in Erie

Category:  News
Thursday, April 11th, 2019 at 9:03 AM

In November 2017, residents of Erie woke to this reality: according to the 24/7 Wall St. Report (not affiliated with The Wall Street Journal) Erie ranked as the worst city in the U.S. for African Americans. The report was then shared through The USA Today, giving it much of its mainstream push. 

It used data from Erie County and applied it to the city of Erie, drawing criticism from residents and publications like GoErie as being a flawed representation of the “gem on the lake.” GoErie, in particular, stated, “That 2017 analysis, though, had statistical problems.”

The Spectator recently sat down with another one of those prominent critics: Dr. Margaret Smith, chatting with her about her research into the true Erie climate for African Americans. This research was presented in February 2019 at the Jefferson Educational Society with the title, “Erie: The Worst City in America for African-Americans, 2017 – Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.”

The research discussed was also published in a paper, titled “Facing Disparities: Is Erie the Worst City in America for African-Americans?” Smith and Dr. Suzanne McDevitt share author credit on the paper.

How long have you lived in Erie?  

Dr. Margaret Smith: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, however, I’ve called Erie home for 15 years now.  

What prompted you to do this research project? How did it all start?  

MS:  Professor Ghosheh, from the geosciences department, is on the Jefferson (Educational) Society board, and he approached me about doing this project. So, I had a discussion with them about how I would approach it, and so we, myself and Dr. Suzanne McDevitt, decided to look into an array of issues, including institutionalized racism and the makeup of the work force in Erie. Just looking at those two categories, we were able to discern that the 24/7 report had not used data from the city of Erie but from the surrounding county as a whole. 

And the city of Erie is really diverse versus the county, right?  

MS: Yes. Because we are a sanctuary city, we have multiple different groups. However, Erie has a smaller African-American percentage. African Americans don’t make up that much in terms of racial diversity in the city.  

Tell me a bit about your research. What factors did you look at?  

MS: In the paper we have data from 1989 all the way to 2016. So, looking at the poverty rates in the city of Erie, you see that the poverty rates are higher than the county and higher than the United States. Looking at an ethnic breakdown of who is most affected by the poverty rates, you see that disproportionately Hispanics and African Americans in 2016 have a greater percentage of poverty. We also looked at economics, the workforce and housing. However, we wanted to look at zip codes; we wanted to see where the most significant impact of poverty was in terms of zip codes. 

 What you’re going to see is that a disproportionate number of African Americans are in zip 16503 and 16507. Parts of these two zip codes are in what we call the lower east side. Looking at these zip codes, we then looked at housing there. One of the areas that we looked in housing was the number of rentals. What we saw was that in 16507, downtown, 99 percent of African Americans rented property, and in 16503, 66 percent of African Americans rented property. What you need to remember is that downtown is where Gannon is located, so of course there is going to be more renting down there. However, when you look at the east side (16503), you still see that many of them are renters.  

Did you look into education at all for this report?  

MS: We did. What you see on the east side (16503), is that many of them don’t have bachelor’s degrees. So, what we then looked at is what we call Frontier (16505), and you see that the unemployment rate and poverty rate is less, however you also see that most of the people over in Frontier tend to have master’s degrees or plus. So, what we tried to show is where the population comes from in terms of high school and BA degrees. You’ll see that in 16505, or even 16504, they have higher levels of high school and BA degrees, but there are more whites that live there than Blacks and Hispanics.  

Really, what you see is that there is no wealth in the black community because people are so dispersed. We don’t have very many manufacturing jobs left in Erie, what we have is Mercyhurst University, Gannon and even Edinboro, and for the most part you can’t be employed at a university without some kind of college degree. So, what we see is that most African Americans are working minimum wage jobs. And minimum wage jobs never lift you out of poverty. Parents who are working two to three minimum wage jobs are not able to bring themselves out of poverty because rent goes up, food goes up, but wage doesn’t go up.  

And if the young people who attend the schools in the city of Erie don’t have adequate resources, their level doesn’t rise either. Schools are directly correlated with how young people will be advanced in Erie. We know that the schools have consolidated because of income; we also know that busing has been reduced. In fact, I had a student who was a social work intern at McKinley Elementary and those kids had to walk at least five blocks to school. Well, when winter came, they didn’t come. Those are the kind of things that effect education. So, if you don’t get a foundation at an early age, you’re not likely to rise up.  

So, does this paper and collection of facts serve as a rebuttal to the 24/7 report? 

MS: It wasn’t so much a rebuttal as a clarification saying, “The process that you used is not providing accurate information.” We also wanted to clarify what some of the factors you need to look at while doing a study like this. In the paper she (Dr. Suzanne McDevitt) looks at median income for example. If you look at the median income for Erie County, the city of Erie, Pennsylvania and the United States as a whole, the numbers all look very different. You see that it all looks different if you put it in perspective.  

Can you talk a bit about the part of your paper where you compare and contrast Erie to similar cities in the region?  

MS: So, that was the final part of the paper. We looked at Allentown, Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio, which are like Erie in that they both had a historic loss of jobs. Both Allentown and Youngstown have access to metropolitan areas, [while] Erie on the other hand is like a silo, so there is no metropolitan areas for people to extract resources from. And that is what makes Erie different in this conversation.  

Smith is a professor in the social work department, and she is also co-director of the Frederick Douglass Institute at Edinboro. 

In the same list of cities for African Americans released in 2018, Erie was no longer on it. 


Shayma Musa |

Tags: erie county

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