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Study: African-American population declining in Austin

Monday, December 8, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The trend of African-American families – and especially middle-class families – departing Austin continues. And, despite the efforts of the African-American Quality of Life initiative, the percentage, numbers and even the income of African-Americans in the Austin community continues to decline.

Demographer Ryan Robinson presented an update to the African-American Resource Advisory Committee Wednesday night. This is roughly a three-year update on the initial efforts of the NAACP to produce a quality of life report card for Austin. Robinson’s presentation used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2007, which is a mid-decade update through traditional polling methods.

It has been common knowledge – even at the time of the first AAQL survey – that the percentage of African-Americans in Austin was declining. During the single-member district discussion, the point was frequently raised that Austin was now a majority minority community, and that the percentage of Hispanics had grown far beyond the percentage of African-Americans in Austin’s population.

However, what Robinson saw in these new 2007 numbers was that – for the first time – the actual number of African-Americans in Austin was declining. That is new. And, for the first time, the actual income of African-Americans has declined in Austin.

Back in 2000, the income of African-American families in Austin would have ranked in the top third of comparable cities. Numbers for 2007 income indicate that the income for Austin’s African-Americans families now falls in the bottom third of major cities. And the average income has dropped from roughly $35,000 to $33,000.

What can be read into those numbers? As Nelson Linder of the NAACP pointed out, unemployment numbers in 2004 for African-Americans hovered at roughly twice the rate of the overall unemployment figures. Back in 2004, the rate of overall unemployment was 3.2 percent. That figure was just over 7 percent in Austin’s African-American community.

Robinson acknowledged that could be a factor, but the shift in income also seems to indicate that Austin is not the first choice for new families. Yes, there is an out-migration of African-Americans to Round Rock and Pflugerville, but there also seems to be a trend that middle-class families who are considering the region do not even bother with Austin and move directly to the suburbs.

For instance, the percentage of African-Americans in Round Rock has jumped 5 percent in the last seven years. Williamson and Hays counties also have seen gains. That is practically unprecedented, Robinson said. By comparison, of course, Austin shows a net loss of African-Americans of greater than 5,000.

That suburbanization of the African-American community has been documented not only in Austin but also in other areas of the country, Robinson said. Once monolithic, the African-American community in America now has split into two factions: the lower-income inner city blacks and their wealthier counterparts living in the bedroom communities around urban areas.

It is also true, from the figures that Robinson revealed, that a smaller percentage of African-Americans in Austin own their own businesses, compared to other ethnic groups. Even Hispanics have managed higher income and more business ownership.

One question that committee members asked – and that Robinson did not have the data yet to answer – was whether African-Americans living in the suburban communities drive into Austin to work. Robinson said it would be his assumption that most are probably commuting to Austin jobs.

Discussion with committee members and Jeff Travillion, the city’s liaison to the Austin Independent School District, raised a number of points. The bottom line was that Austin – despite the quality of life study – has yet to do what it needs to do to attract African-Americans back to the city. Members raised issues about the quality of schools serving predominantly African-American students – both Pearce Middle School and Reagan High School – are on the path to closure by the state this year due to poor academic performance.

The discussion also included talk about African-American communities being more “user friendly.” Neighborhoods with their own amenities – movie theaters, restaurants and parks – and the fact that families can get larger homes for the same price in outlying communities means they are far more attractive for people shopping the area for a place to live.

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