IOWA CITY — LaTasha Massey worked hard to own her Iowa City house.
A community projects specialist for Johnson County with a master's degree in social work from the University of Iowa, she received assistance from a city-run, state-funded program to help with her down payment. Yet, despite her job and degrees, she had difficulty.
She first sought places to rent but ran into landlords who said they did not take Section 8 cases. How many kids do you have? she was asked, an assumption she believes they made because she is a black woman in her early 30s and was looking for housing.
The questions fit what she hears in Iowa City, a university town more culturally diverse than other Iowa towns, about "those people" — code for black people coming from urban centers like Chicago to find subsidized housing, she said.
"You become an outsider even though you've been here for years," said Massey, an Iowa City High graduate.
Seeing racial gaps
At least Massey's advanced degree, good job and, now, home-ownership put her ahead of the curve for most black Iowans, and also another growing minority group in the state, Latinos, an investigation by six news organizations revealed. That investigation showed that the gaps in education, income and housing among whites, blacks and Latinos in Iowa have grown worse over the last five decades.
White Iowans have made strong gains in high school and college graduation rates, lowering poverty levels, median family income and home-ownership since 1960. But black and Latino achievements in these areas have grown far more slowly, or in some cases declined, contributing to a widening opportunity gap among the races.
The reasons can be found in a blend of institutional racism, negative stereotypes of minorities in Iowa, limited support from the state, language barriers and immigrants' lack of knowledge of U.S. culture, Iowans who deal with the disparity said in interviews. Those interviewed include black and Latino residents and leaders, social workers, officials in government and law enforcement, and community leaders.
They spoke for a special project, Iowa's Opportunity Gap, a collaboration of IowaWatch; The Gazette, in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City; The Hawk Eye of Burlington; The Fort Dodge Messenger; the West Liberty Index; and the Colorado-based public service journalism organization I-News, which analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data from 1960 through 2010 and made them available for the project.
"With this being the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's speech, I think everybody would agree that race relations have come a very long way," Charles Clayton, executive director of Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge, said. "But when it comes to certain things — housing, education, jobs — there's still a long way to go."
Iowa's census numbers show the high school graduation rate doubling for whites to a little more than nine of every 10 getting diplomas. The rate for black Iowans has almost tripled, although to only a little more than eight of every 10 graduating from high school.
The Latino rate has become dismal — half of the Latino youths were graduating from high school when the 2010 census was taken a few years after large immigration raids disrupted families and schooling in Iowa.
Little improvement is seen when it comes to owning a home. Three of every four white Iowans owns one, up slightly from 1960. Half of the state's Latinos and three of every 10 blacks owned a home in 2010. That is down from a peak in 1970 when an average exceeding three of every five Latinos and just shy of three of every five blacks owned homes.
The impact can be profound in a state whose current marketing slogan is "fields of opportunity."
"I think it's obviously going to impact us negatively economically in the end," Marshalltown Police Chief Michael Tupper said. "If Iowa ends up with a reputation for being an intolerant state, I think it's going to be very difficult to attract people to our state, to attract businesses to our state."
Joan Jaimes, an outreach counselor for Marshalltown Community College and secretary of the U.S. Council on Latino Affairs, said disparities among whites and Latinos in Iowa could be related to a rapidly growing immigrant population and more slowly increasing white population. A 2012 report by the State Data Center of Iowa showed the state's Latino population almost doubled from 2000 to 2011, to a little more than 5 percent of Iowa's population.
Adjusting to the changing demographics will take some work for both immigrants and longtime Iowans.
"It's a question of learning what employers here need, but it's also a question of educating the employers and the educators in the system here about how to accommodate to the growing population," Jaimes said.
Virgil Gooding, a therapist at Keys to Awareness in Cedar Rapids and a member of that city's African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee, points to a 2011 Linn County Institutional Analysis, which was to examine racial disparities in child welfare.
"The Institutional Analysis found the same things that the various African American communities had been telling folks for years," Gooding said.
He is not convinced that racial attitudes in Iowa are improving.
"What I have seen is racial attitudes have seemed to overtly change in one direction and covertly change in the other," Gooding said.
"In fact, we hear folks always talking about how things are getting better, but then we have these statistics. Now either the statistics are wrong, or that image that things are getting better is wrong. I tend to go with the statistics," he said.
"The issue here is that there's never been an honest conversation about racial attitudes in this state and about the various institutions in the state regarding treatment of African American citizens," he said.
Gooding said factors such as the effects of substance abuse, crime and mental health need to be part of the conversation when addressing racial attitudes and inequality in Iowa.
The Rev. Shane McCampbell, a local pastor and member of the Burlington City Council, added poverty to the list. "A lot of people say poor people are lazy," McCampbell said. "Poor people are the hardest workers and they have no choice because they have to. When you are doing that, you are not at home trying to encourage your kids. It's hard to be successful when your parents are gone."
Latino high school graduation rates in Iowa peaked in 1990 at 64 percent, but in 2010 were down to 53 percent, significantly below the 2010 national Latino graduation rate of 62 percent.
"We used to be a top education state and we've bottomed out tremendously," said Lena Avila Robison, the president of Latinos Unidos of Iowa, a 24-year-old non-profit organization that provides support services to the state's Latinos. "It's sad."
The black high school graduation rate in Iowa was 83 percent in 2010, 1 percentage point above the national average for blacks but still below the 92 percent white graduation rate in the state.
Many community leaders trying to close the gap focus on education as the starting point. The Calvary Family Center in Fort Dodge tutors youngsters in math and reading.
Most of the students were African Americans when Calvary Memorial Church of God in Christ's pastor, the Rev. Leroy Johnson, helped launch the center in 2004 but children from all races attend now.
The Fort Dodge public school district directs youths to the center and works with the center on programming.
"We were trying to close that disparity gap and try to help, knowing that starting at a young age is — it's more effective if you work with the kids and they get the fundamentals of reading," Calvary Family Center Director Sharla Coleson said.
"Everything involves reading," she said. "We felt if would could get a hold of them when they're younger and help them improve their reading skills, or even take more of an interest in reading, which in turn would improve their skills, we'd be accomplishing something."
Another program in Fort Dodge is Athletics for Education and Success. It was established in 2004 with small sports camps and clinics to provide positive messages about school, drug awareness and domestic violence education.
"A lot of things AFES tries to do is to keep kids on the right path," co-founder and executive director Clayton said. "We just have to find how to disguise it so kids don't know what we're doing."
Criminal justice concerns
Black leaders said disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system affects the ability to succeed in school or get a good job.
"You get that marijuana arrest on your record, that's going to affect your future as far as employment, education and different opportunities are going to be cut off," Dedric Doolin, clinical director for the Area Substance Abuse Council in Cedar Rapids and an NAACP board member there, said.
Dave Selmon, of Burlington, has a criminal record. He served time for forgery, a felony, but graduated recently from Southeastern Community College.
He said young people need to see black people in a more positive light but also challenged black men to make sure they don't defeat themselves, and, moreover, to be around as a father figure for their children.
"These young kids have a better opportunity to graduate today, but they have to apply themselves," Selmon, 56, said. "There may be a disparity, but we don't have to fall victim to it. If you have the system working against you don't have to work against yourself."
Iowa's college graduation rates display a significant disparity as well. One of every four white Iowans in the 2010 census graduated college, one of every six African Americans and one of every 10 Latinos.
All three rates are below national averages and the Latino rate is decreasing.
The affordability of college can be a problem for Latinos, said Vanessa Marcano, a representative of Citizens for Community Improvement, a politically active group that advocates for stronger immigrant rights, among other causes.
"They're still working very low wage jobs so they have to work two or three so they don't have time or they just cannot afford it," she said.
Complicating matters, undocumented Latinos cannot have access to any financial aid or any need scholarships.
Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson sees a solution in an education appropriations bill, House File 604, that passed the Iowa Legislature this year. He said it will help train more Iowans, especially minorities, for employment.
On June 20, Gov. Terry Branstad signed the bill into law, authorizing $5.5 million for adult education and literacy programs at community colleges and $15.3 million for the state's work force training and economic development funds.
Robison was unconvinced that the money will be used effectively for educational purposes. "It looks like a great number, but a lot of that money is administrative fees," she said.
Doolin said recruiting people of color for jobs would help close the disparity gap because it could counter an image of Iowa being a place that puts people in prison at a higher percentage than any other state.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department employs 203 officers. Three are black and one is Latino.
Iowa will lose potential workers if such disparities continue, Doolin said.
"Your African American kids who are talented and knowledgeable and skillful often look to leave because they don't want to deal with that," he said.
Poverty a major barrier
Poverty for Iowa's minorities is growing. While the white poverty rate in Iowa has stayed near 11 percent for 40 years, the rate had increased by 2010 to 43 percent for blacks and 27 percent for Latinos, the census data show.
The poverty puts stress on emergency shelters.
"A lot of the problem for African American and Hispanic families is they tend to have a lot more children and they just don't tend to have the same support systems," said Major Von Vandiver, commanding officer of the Salvation Army of Siouxland in Sioux City.
"When there is a relatively small incident, when the car breaks down or someone gets sick, it just pushes them over the edge and they end up in our emergency shelters."
Correspondingly, median family income and home-ownership rates among blacks and Latinos are far lower than for whites in the state.
The 2010 median family income for white Iowans was $62,423, while black families earned $26,760, less than half of what whites made. The median income of Latino families was $38,030.
Median family income for whites in 2010 was 11 times higher than it was in 1960; it was only five times higher for blacks and Latinos.
The home-ownership rates in Iowa in 2010 were 74 percent for whites, 31 percent for blacks and 51 percent for Latinos. Fifty years early 56 percent of black Iowans and 53 percent of Latinos in the state owned a home.
For Latinos, the low percentage of homeowners may have to do with the search for jobs, Vandiver said. "I think a lot of the Hispanic population here in Sioux City is fairly transient," he said. "They come here for a job and if it doesn't work out they go find a job someplace else."
That's the case on the opposite side of the state in Columbus Junction, where the Tyson Foods meat packing plant employs 1,200 in a town of 1,900 residents.
The town has a constant population of around 900 Latino residents but families often come and go, seeking new job opportunities. If they don't stay they often move to other Iowa towns with a significant Latino population, Mallory Smith, at Columbus Junction's Office of Community Development, said.
A welcoming state
Robison said Iowa has failed to create a welcoming environment for those who struggle with English by not hiring enough Spanish speakers.
"I just left state employment, and I will tell you that I feel that they've dropped the ball," Robison, who was an investigator for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, said. "They tend not to hire the bilingual individual who is definitely needed in certain areas."
The Iowa Department of Transportation had been refusing to grant drivers licenses to DREAMers, the term for people younger than 30 brought into the United States illegally by their parents and who were exempted from deportation by the federal government in 2012. The DOT reversed its position in January, but not before creating ill will among the Latino community.
"If they would come up with programs that instead of raising barriers would open opportunities, more people would feel that Iowa is friendly and would feel comfortable opening businesses," Marshalltown Community College's Joan Jaimes said. "They would feel comfortable being in leadership positions. They would trust the government more."
Iowa's education appropriations bill included $212,000 to establish a pilot program "to provide access to international resources to Iowans and new Iowans to provide economic and leadership development resulting in Iowa being a more inclusive and welcoming place to live, work, and raise a family."
Finally, there's that language barrier between Latino immigrants and longtime Iowans. It is a major hurdle but for Latinos, Jaimes said, immigration is worth it.
"It may be difficult, but it would have been worse if they would have stayed wherever they were from," Jaimes said.
— Gregg Hennigan of The Gazette (Cedar Rapids), Jermaine Pigee of The Hawkeye (Burlington), Joe Sutter of the Fort Dodge Messenger and IowaWatch data analyst/staff reporter Lauren Mills contributed to this report. Stephen Gruber-Miller also did reporting for the West Liberty Index.
ABOUT THIS PROJECT:
This is a five-week series examining the disparity gap that shows up in U.S. Census data for Iowa from 1960 through 2010.
- Sunday, Sept. 15: Overview — the Opportunity Gap in Iowa is growing
- Sunday, Sept. 22: Poverty and Employment
- Sunday, Sept. 29: Education
- Sunday, Oct. 6: Crime
- Sunday, Oct. 13: Housing
HOW WE DID THE PROJECT
U.S. Census data
IowaWatch obtained an analysis of 50 years of U.S. Census data earlier this year from the Colorado-based public service journalism organization I-News, a member of the Investigative News Network to which IowaWatch belongs. IowaWatch pulled Iowa data from the I-News report, organized and analyzed it, and shared it with The Hawk Eye in Burlington; The Fort Dodge Messenger; The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City; and the West Liberty Index. Reporters from those newspapers interviewed sources in Burlington, Fort Dodge, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and West Liberty. IowaWatch did the other interviews.
The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org is a non-profit, online news website dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work.