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How African-Americans See Their Lives


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The state of the African-American family is often a topic of discussion of academic study, of public policy debate, even White House initiatives. But too often the voices of African-Americans themselves are not central to those conversations. Now there's a new effort to address that. It's called the Survey of African-American families. The poll is a joint project between Ebony magazine and the W.K. Kellogg foundation. It is featured in the latest issue of Ebony. That's on the newsstands today. Joining us to speak about the results is Ron Lester, who led the survey, and Dr. Gail Christopher. She is the vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation. And they're both with us now. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

RON LESTER: Glad to be here.


MARTIN: So, Ron Lester, let's start with you. You say this is sort of a good news, bad news report. Tell us a little bit more, if you would.

LESTER: Well, first of all, we had an opportunity here to really cover the whole gamut of issues affecting family, even going into relationships. It's the first poll that I've seen of African-Americans since the affordable health care has passed. We cover health in a holistic manner, even dental, mental health, drug use. We touch on the issues of homicide and suicide. So it's not just a standard survey of standard measurements, but it's fairly comprehensive.

MARTIN: So tell me more about the findings and what stood out for you.

LESTER: OK, well, basically the mood of African-Americans is kind of lukewarm, as you said starting out. Forty-eight percent say things are going in the right direction, and 37 percent said, wrong track. So that's the mood question. We always start out, in a poll, at the outset to kind of gauge the mood. The mood is good in the West, in the Southwest and in the South where people are migrating towards - the mood - it's net positive.

Like, 60 percent say, right direction, and less than 40 percent say, wrong track. In terms of some key measurements, in terms of where we're making progress and losing ground, there's clearly a recognition that we're making progress in health care, in education reform, in equal opportunities. But we're kind of losing ground on the fundamental economic issues. People believe, by a strong margin, that there's income inequality in America. People believe that they don't make enough. About 33 percent actually indicate some kind of economic issue as their top concern. So things are going fairly well, but folks are not making enough money and having difficulty fitting into the new economy.

MARTIN: OK. So, Gail Christopher, one of the numbers that stuck with you was that 88 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with the quality of their lives, and that number actually disturbed you. And you wrote actually a whole piece about this for Ebony magazine in a column accompanying the poll results. Why did that disturb you?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, I think that the satisfaction with the quality of life reflects being lulled into, in some cases, too much complacency. The actual facts about our economic situation and about the achievement gaps in school and the overrepresentation in suspension rates and the incarceration disparities tell us as a community that we have a lot of work to do. And we have to be not satisfied if we're going to drive for the kinds of social change that's required.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? I'm asking you to speculate here, Gail Christopher, about why it is that people could be objectively struggling, but so many people be satisfied overall.

CHRISTOPHER: Well, I think that we have come so far as a people, I mean, if we look back at our history. And the problem is we don't keep a historic focus enough, right? So from a relative sense, we are certainly so much better off than we were as a people. And so we are by nature, I think, more optimistic, and our innate resilience and our capacity for resilience makes it a requirement that we have hope and that we continue to believe and move forward in a positive way. So I think that that question taps into that innate sense of hope for the future. Yes, we are all excited about having an African-American first family. I think there's no question about that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new survey of African-American families, a joint project of Ebony magazine and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Our guests are Dr. Gail Christopher of the Kellogg Foundation and Ron Lester, who led the research study. One area you mentioned where African-Americans seemed particularly optimistic is in health care. Sixty percent of those surveyed said the nation was making progress in providing health care access. I was also really intrigued by the finding that 70 percent of those surveyed said mental health was a big or very big problem in the black community. Will you talk about that a little bit, if you would?

LESTER: Absolutely. Mental health is an emerging problem, and then approximately half of the respondents actually know someone who's been a victim of a suicide or a homicide. Among people 18 to 29, 77 percent know someone who's been the victim of a suicide or homicide. And just about 90 percent of the respondents in our survey indicated that they think there should be on-demand drug treatment.

MARTIN: Do you think, Gail Christopher - do you think that that's a sign of progress in a way, that people are actually willing to or able to acknowledge that they have concerns about mental health, just because for so long this was seen as taboo? This was the kind of thing you couldn't talk about. I don't know. Maybe, Ron, you start there. Do you think that that's - in your experience of polling on these sensitive questions, is this noteworthy that people are willing to acknowledge these kinds of concerns?

LESTER: I think it is indeed. I think we're seeing major changes here in health care. I mean, just a couple of years ago, if you asked the question, are we making access and providing access - are we making progress in providing accessibility in health care, it would be net negative. But now 60 percent say, yes, we're making progress.

Twenty-three percent say that they aren't. So just in terms of health care in general, the awareness of mental health, the awareness that on-demand drug treatment is something that's preferred, I think we see some kind of increasing awareness here. Certainly, this is one of the early legacies - you can't say legacy 'cause it's not over yet - but of the Obama presidency. I think that the Obama presidency has kind of broken through on this issue. People are aware that there are more options in health care. There are more opportunities, and that's a good thing.

MARTIN: Gail Christopher, what's your perspective on these findings?

CHRISTOPHER: I would say it is a reflection of some of the advocacy and organizing and movement work around working toward access to mental health care services. We spent at least a decade trying to make sure that you could get mental health care services. And so that call for that kind of increased availability, I think it has found some traction in the general consciousness of the public. I also think that the absolute epidemics that we have of violence, homicide and suicide, I think that there's a heightened understanding that exposure to so much violence within communities - the Trayvon Martin tragedy - has made us all realize that, you know, this is part of our life. It shouldn't be, and we have to have access to tools and resources to do something about it.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, a final thought from each of you about, other than what we've already discussed, was there some issue for African-Americans that you particularly hope will get new attention perhaps as a result of these findings? Dr. Christopher, what about you?

CHRISTOPHER: I am particularly focused on the economic disparities. Prior to the recession, the average white family, you know, earned four times - that's gone up to six times the average income of black families. The issue of economic disparity is the most critical issue our communities face, and we have to really have a plan for doing something about creating more opportunity for the African-American community.

MARTIN: Ron, what about you?

LESTER: You know, I think...

MARTIN: You were a political pollster...


MARTIN: ...As we mentioned. You've spent decades, you know, telling people what really matters and what's on people's minds. What's the real important take-away here?

LESTER: I have two things. One is the old adage that when America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia. So we're still partially recovering from the housing meltdown of 2007, 2008. We still haven't quite got back on our feet. In the survey, 5 percent of black homeowners are in foreclosure or facing foreclosure, which is just way too high. It's usually about 2 percent. So those numbers are out of line.

So the economics, Dr. Christopher said, are really important. In terms of fitting into the new economy, job skills, etc. and making enough money to take care of your family, those are all huge issues. But on the other hand, the point Dr. Christopher made about 10 years worth of advocacy in the mental health community, that's really beginning to pay off, particularly with health here. Twenty percent of African-Americans don't have health insurance as indicated in the poll. And 32 percent of them said that they were going to or they have already signed up for Obamacare. Among 18 to 29-year-olds, it was 67 percent. So people feel good about that, and that's making real progress.

MARTIN: Veteran pollster Ron Lester led the new survey of African-American families. It's a joint project of Ebony magazine and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Dr. Gail Christopher is a vice president of program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation. She joined us from her office in Battle Creek, Michigan. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LESTER: Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, the survey can be found in Ebony magazine, which is on the newsstands now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.