Gardening season is over, but it’s a gardening analogy that best describes an inadequacy currently facing Pennsylvania. In the spring, seeds are typically planted inside, to ensure they sprout. But after a few weeks, seedlings must be placed outside so they can grow into big, hearty plants. If the seedlings are kept indoors, their growth will be stunted, and it’s unlikely they’ll reach their full potential.
Currently, many minority residents of Pennsylvania are like those seedlings kept inside, and their growth could be held back. Pennsylvania, like the U.S. as a whole, is becoming more multicultural every year, but according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child-welfare organization, the state is falling behind in ensuring its minority residents succeed.
“The disparities among racial groups on indicators of family resources point to the obstacles that families of color face in gaining financial stability,” reads the foundation’s 2017 Race for Results report, which assesses the status of child well-being by looking at elementary and middle-school test scores, rates of children in pre-K education, and birth-rate statistics.
2017 Race for Results broke down rankings by state and race, and Pennsylvania performed poorly across all demographics, but particularly in regard to African Americans and Latinos. Pennsylvania ranked 32nd in how well its African-American children performed, the lowest among states in the Northeast. For Latinos, it was even worse: Pennsylvania ranked 48th. Only Rhode Island’s Latinos fared worse. (Vermont couldn’t be scored.)
These results come at a time when minority residents are the only growing racial demographic in the state. In addition to the growing presence of Asians, Latinos and black people in Pennsylvania, other reports show that minority residents are also greatly contributing to the economy. Many of Pennsylvania’s minority and immigrant groups are starting businesses at higher rates than are white residents, and providing jobs to Pennsylvanians. According to pro-immigrant and pro-business coalition the New American Economy, 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s workers are employed by immigrant-owned businesses, even though immigrants make up only 6 percent of the state’s population.
Basically, minorities in the state are ready to burst out of their planter boxes, and experts agree that Pennsylvania must increase its investment in minorities, so they, and the state, can blossom into their full potential.
Joan Benso, president and CEO of child-advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, is disappointed by Pennsylvania’s rankings. “There is no reason we shouldn’t be in the top 10 in the nation, for every sub-group,” says Benso. In addition to Pennsylvania’s poor rankings for African Americans and Latinos, the state ranked 20th in terms of white performance and 14th for Asians and Pacific Islanders. Benso says Pennsylvania is underperforming, given its moderate levels of poverty. For example, California has higher poverty and unemployment rates than Pennsylvania, but the Keystone State has lower rankings across all demographics than does California.
“Why aren’t we at the top?” asks Benso. “We don’t have deep poverty or high unemployment. I believe we don’t make education a high enough priority.”
Benso says a lack of focus on education is most harmful to Latinos. For one, most Latinos in the state grow up in households without a parent who has an American high-school education.
Jeimy Sanchez-Ruiz is the youth community-outreach coordinator at Brookline-based Latino services organization Casa San Jose. She works with Latino students in the Pittsburgh Public School District in the South Hills, and says she has experienced firsthand what Benso is describing. Sanchez-Ruiz believes Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania need to increase services to their growing Latino populations.
“Their ESL programs aren’t really equipped for students that only speak a dialect at home and are trying to learn English,” wrote Sanchez-Ruiz in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper. “Most of these kids have never had real schooling. The kids that I work with do say that they struggle in school because they can’t understand. Parents have a difficult time understanding the school system as well because most of them haven’t gone to school.”
Benso says other populations in Pennsylvania are also struggling due to lack of services and resources. According to the Race for Results report, only 8 percent of black eighth-graders in Pennsylvania, and only 14 percent of Latinos, scored at or above proficient on math tests, while 68 percent of white students met or performed better than the same standards.