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.
Benso says there’s a huge education-funding gap for African Americans, and rural whites are also experiencing similar problems. Benso believes state legislators should be allocating more money to education, and should be targeting areas to provide a boost to these disadvantaged communities.
And, according to Benso, a huge gap currently exists in an area that could help minority and disadvantaged students: pre-K education. She believes that universal pre-K in high-poverty areas can be game-changing for minority and disadvantaged students. But, Benso says, Pennsylvania is allocating only enough funds to serve one-third of the children eligible for pre-K education.
Benso says our minority students’ grades will improve only if the state invests in them adequately, in areas beyond education as well. “We need to put enough money in the school-funding system and expand the funding to pre-K,” says Benso. “We also shouldn’t blow up the [Affordable Care Act] and Medicaid, since [early child health] is linked to early reading proficiency.
“Why did New Jersey Latinos and other demographics score better than us? They invest. That is a good reason why we should invest. Other states are just investing faster than we are.”
Benso says investing in all of Pennsylvania’s youth isn’t just the right thing to do to help a historically disadvantaged sector; it also helps the economy. “If we don’t invest, we will continue to see our children do not as well as their peers,” says Benso. “Ultimately, it will have a continued negative impact on our workforce. You already hear that now, that employers can’t find workers for their open positions.”
Some might make arguments that focusing on providing additional services to people of color would be misplaced, because the vast majority of Pennsylvania is still white (81 percent). But demographic trends suggest that figure will change. Since 2010, Pennsylvania’s non-white population has increased, while the share of white residents has declined.
Asians and Pacific Islanders now comprise 3.5 percent of the state’s population, compared to 2.9 percent in 2010. The percentage of black residents has ticked up marginally, to 11 percent from 10.8 percent in 2010. Latinos are the fastest-growing racial demographic in the state, now comprising 7 percent of Pennsylvania’s population, up from 5.7 percent in 2010. All the while, the state’s white population has decreased 2 percent since 2010.
Pennsylvania’s population growth isn’t the only reason to focus on minority residents. Kate Brick, of the New American Economy, says it’s good economics to accommodate immigrants and children of immigrants, who primarily hail from Asian and Latin American countries.
In August 2016, the New American Economy produced a report showing that immigrants have made oversized contributions to Pennsylvania’s economy, and in October 2017, a report by the group showed that immigrants are also contributing to the Great Lakes Region, including Pittsburgh, even though the area has a small proportion of immigrants.
The report states that from 2000-2015, Pittsburgh saw a 91 percent increase in immigrant entrepreneurs and approximately an 11 percent increase in working-class employment in manufacturing for all demographics.
“We hope this report helps combat the narrative that immigrants are taking jobs,” says Brick. “We wanted to show that immigrants are actually responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs that were created.”
Brick says immigrants and children of immigrants have very high rates of entrepreneurship, and those rates are growing. (A 2015 report from the Minority Business Development Agency confirms these findings, and says that black-owned businesses are also growing.) Brick adds that Pittsburgh and other cities in Pennsylvania, like Lancaster, have been smart in creating programs to boost immigrant and minority businesses. But the state could do more.
“I think there is a lot more that all states can do,” says Brick. She references Michigan’s new Office for New Americans, and says Pennsylvania is considering an office to boost immigrant and minority businesses, but no solid plans have emerged. Brick says “it would benefit the state to create this” office.
“I think the biggest takeaway from the report,” says Brick, “is in the Great Lakes region and Pennsylvania, the immigrant community is the future of our labor force and the economy and growth.”