Published February 2nd, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Fran Marion lights up when she talks about her kids.
“She’s artistic,” Marion said about her daughter. “She has gifts in photography.”
Marion’s daughter watched her work tirelessly to keep the family fed and housed for years. After high school, she made the choice to skip college and go right to work to avoid putting her mother further into a financial hole.
“As a mother, that hurts,” Marion said.
Marion spends all day serving food at a Kansas City Taco Bell for $15 an hour, only to go home and struggle to put food on the table for her kids.
Both her grandmother and mother worked in the service industry as well, and now she’s watching her own children work in fast food and child care.
Some parents watch their kids follow in their footsteps with excitement. But Marion isn’t one of them. She wants better.
“It’s all my kids have been around,” she said. “It’s all they know … We’re still in the same cycle.”
Marion is speaking on the cyclical nature of poverty, which she likens to a generational curse.
A recent study from WalletHub ranked 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of wealth gaps by ethnicity. The rankings were calculated based on a blend of factors including household income, homeownership rate, poverty rate and educational attainment.
When you add it all up, Black families like Marion’s are still getting the short end of the stick nationwide.
The study’s blended methodology ranked Kansas 17th, meaning the state has the 17th largest wealth equality gap in the U.S. Missouri seemed much more equitable at 45th in terms of wealth gap.
Even so, key disparities remain large in both states. The household income gap between white and Black households was 38.4% in Kansas, and 36.9% in Missouri. The homeownership rate between white and Black households was 49.8% in Kansas, and 47.4% in Missouri.
This equity profile of Kansas City from the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) also found that local income inequality is lower than the United States as a whole, but it’s still increasing.
Nationwide things are getting worse instead of better, and longtime MARC researcher and economist Frank Lenk has an idea why.
“There are disparities in opportunity, and they arise from the way that areas here have … the largest concentration of poor people in the same areas where minorities live, and that tends to suppress those areas,” Lenk said.
“Limited opportunities and a lower tax base makes it harder to have good schools. It’s harder to have safe neighborhoods. And so all of those things figure into whether kids have the same educational opportunities and therefore the same opportunities when they get out of school.”
The indicators of wealth inequality come down to a few primary factors: education, income and homeownership. These three things are intertwined and tend to create an almost inescapable cycle of upward or downward economical movement.
Take the last four generations of the Marion family, for instance.
Marion’s grandmother and mother were unable to go to college, but the service industry was accessible to them. Fran’s grandmother was eventually able to purchase a home, which is the primary way that families are able to build wealth. After she passed away, the home was lost because no one else in the family made enough money to keep it.
When it was Marion’s turn to enter the workforce, she did what was accessible to her as well – jobs in fast food. Despite service industry jobs being considered essential to the functioning of society, she didn’t make enough money to live on. Homeownership is also out of the question because if you’re having to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table, there’s little left over to save or invest.
In this cycle, poverty begets poverty. Late fees, loans and interest payments mount with no hope of being paid off by a minimum wage job.
With her kids coming of age and entering the service industry themselves, Marion feels like she’s watching history repeat itself.
“I come from a service family. That’s all we’ve done is give service. That’s all my kids do is give service,” she said.
This story, unfortunately, is familiar for most African American families.
“The disparity is in the opportunity to be well prepared so that all the talent that is out there gets nurtured,” Lenk said. “Talent doesn’t follow racial lines, but the opportunity to nurture that talent does. That’s why (wealth inequality) has gotten worse.”
Even low income minority students who move on to higher education aren’t getting an automatic ticket out of poverty. College graduates do make more money, but in Kansas City, Black and Latino graduates are less likely to be in high-opportunity jobs than their white or Asian counterparts.
According to Lenk, a large part of this can again be attributed to the fact that Kansas City is segregated by race and class. Kids coming out of low income and minority neighborhoods don’t have the same connections and social networks as kids in white or upper class neighborhoods.
Moreover, even many people who are able to get a college degree are often saddled with heavy student loan debts.
The economic injustices Marion has experienced were the catalyst for her advocacy work with Stand Up KC and Fight For $15. These groups advocate for higher wages and more power in the hands of low-wage workers.
In 2020, Marion gave a speech at a Black Lives Matter protest as a leader of Stand Up KC.
“I want to be free,” she said. “I want my kids to live in a world where life is something to be cherished.”
Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.