Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 11:50 UK

Poverty hits African Americans hard

BBC correspondent Matthew Price continues his journey across America, and reports from Chicago, Barack Obama's home town, where African American community leaders fear the recession is dragging down their communities more than most.


Feeding the hungry in Chicago

On the South Side of Chicago, in the back room of a house, on an old hospital bed, an elderly woman lies sound asleep. Her head is to one side on the pillow. Her mouth is slightly open as she breathes.

BBC correspondent Matthew Price is travelling across the US, reporting from a new city every day, to assess the state of the economy as President Obama approaches 100 days in office. See the Beyond Wall Street route here.

The woman's name is Bernice Williams.

In the 1960s Bernice was part of an emerging black middle class. She had a steady job with the Chicago Water Department for 30 years.

Then, 47 years ago, she made a little bit of music history.

She wrote a song that spent three weeks at the top of the US Hot 100 Billboard chart. The song was called the Duke of Earl.

Now, it all seems to have counted for so little.

Eaten alive

The future that Bernice Williams envisaged for herself, for her daughter, for her grandchildren, has not materialised.

Her daughter, Roxanne, has a good job as a nurse, but hers is the only salary supporting this family.

Her son-in-law, Don Burnett, is an unemployed computer programmer who is struggling to help the family make ends meet.

Her grandson, Joron, is a talented rap artist who goes by the name of Jnan, and who had to leave the prestigious Columbia University as his parents could no longer afford the fees.

"At one point we had savings," Don explains.

He speaks of holidays the family once took. "I don't know when that will ever happen again."

After Don lost his job, "we had to cash things in and delete bank accounts to make end meet" he says.

"We had to cash in our [assets] to pay off the mortgage and get the utilities paid. It sounds simple. It's not that simple. We just got eaten alive."

Disproportionately hit

This is the story of one family, but it is also the story - in some ways - of the US economy today.

Food aid to feed Americas poor
Food aid is needed to feed the poor in the world's wealthiest country.

"We are an average middle class family," says Don.

"It's unheralded. We lived in this neighbourhood for 20 years. Now I'm watching my neighbours struggle just to keep their house."

Poverty is growing across the United States. Many communities are affected. Yet a number of studies suggest that African Americans in general have been hit harder than others.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment has risen to 13.4% since the recession began in December 2007. The national unemployment rate is 8.5%.

One of the largely untold stories of America's economic decline is the disproportionate effect it appears to be having on African Americans.

Food aid

You get a sense of the problems in this part of Chicago, even before the lorry turns up at St Columbanus church.

It is miserably cold and wet, and yet around the back of the car park there is a queue forming. They stand patiently, faces screwed up against the wind.

The lorry arrives and the volunteers get to work, unloading the food. Then they allow the queue of people to come in.

It looks like a farmers' market, but this is food aid, in the world's wealthiest country.

Frightening prospect

LaVerne Morris runs the food bank, and she has been watching things get worse every week.

For the first time in our history the people don't have the feeling that they are turning over a better future for their children than the one that they received from their parents
Reverend Alvin Love

Some here are chronically poor, but others are this country's emerging poor.

"These people are the mainstream Americans who are working jobs for salaries every week," she says. "They have been the ones who lost their jobs first."

A few miles away, the Reverend Alvin Love, sharp and smart in a suit and a crisp white shirt, points to the rear of his church. His gold wedding ring gleams in the subdued light.

Barack Obama used to sit in the pews towards the back. That was when the now president was a community organiser here.

Reverend Love is worried - like many local leaders. He can see this recession affecting the African American community particularly badly.

"For the first time in our history the people don't have the feeling that they are turning over a better future for their children than the one that they received from their parents," he says.

"I think that's a frightening prospect."

Fading dream

In the community centre down the road they hold a joint prayer before getting down to business.

The talk is not just of rising unemployment - the local jobless rate is estimated to be over 60% - but crime too, and recently murder. Gang shootings appear to be coming back.

"In just a month we're probably at five," says community leader Georgette Greenlee-Finney.

"We've had Tommy, Marshaan, this man who just died."

Community leaders such as Georgette can see the recession pulling the area backwards. She believes the rising crime rate is directly related to the deteriorating economy.

As for the billions that the White House has set aside to boost the economy, she cannot see that filtering down to her community.

"There is a fear that lot of dollars are going to be put into construction jobs and into places where blacks have historically been for want of a better term red-lined out, through racism."

There is another fear. That this recession is pushing African-Americans further from the dream of economic equality.

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