The blog of the Urban Institute
August 27, 2021

By Investing in the South, Philanthropy Can Reduce Black Children’s Inequality

August 26, 2021

Today, more than half of the US Black population lives in the South. This concentration of Black Americans is the latest stage of a long-term trend that started in the 1970s, when the number of Black people living in southern states began to grow again after decades of decreasing numbers during the Great Migration

The Black South is a rich source of cultural traditions in music, religion, cuisine, and other fields, with widespread national and global influence. But it is also deeply challenged by a history of structural racism and accompanying public- and private-sector disinvestment in education, health, and economic development. Southern states have been neglected by philanthropy as well, which invests less than 3 percent of its national expenditures in the region.

(The US Census Bureau’s definition of the South, used throughout this blog post, includes Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, DC.)

For Black children, the enduring effects of systematic disinvestment, combined with historic discriminatory policies and institutional practices, have significantly reduced opportunities for healthy development and have resulted in markedly different levels of well-being as young adults. These negative effects have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. By increasing its investments in southern communities and tackling the structural, economic, and social forces that create these inequitable outcomes, philanthropy can significantly contribute to reducing inequality for Black children and young adults. 

Southern Black children disproportionally experience poverty

The likelihood of growing up in a family experiencing poverty is especially high for Black children living in the South. In 2019, regional rates for the share of Black children younger than 18 who lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty level ranged from 19 percent in Maryland to 43 percent in Louisiana. Black children in 16 of 17 southern states experienced poverty at rates higher than the national average for all children in 2019 (estimates were not available for West Virginia).

Experiencing poverty during childhood can have lifelong consequences that affect health, education, earnings, and more, making investments in children during their crucial formative years even more important. The far-reaching societal consequences of these investments affect the quality and strength of tomorrow’s workforce, economy, and educational, criminal justice, and health systems.  

The American Rescue Plan Act is projected to cut the 2021 poverty rate for children by more than half, which is good news for future generations. The funds offer critical support for southern Black families, many of whom experienced disproportionate losses of life, housing, and income during the pandemic. Philanthropic investments can build on that base. 

Funders can contribute to reducing Black children’s poverty and supporting their healthy development by expanding access to child care and housing vouchers, supporting employment training and jobs programs, and building advocacy for policy change in areas such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, child support, and tax credits for earned income, children, and child and dependent care.

Reimagining grantmaking to support equity 

Working in southern communities does not mean one-size-fits-all grantmaking. Instead, it necessitates reimagining the philanthropic role to recognize that effective grantmaking requires sensitivity to regional differences and openness to new approaches with communities and organizations. Without these adjustments, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy warns that the broken relationships and mistrust from decades of southern “philanthropic misadventures” will likely continue.

More effective strategies for engaging with southern communities include building relationships, recognizing diverse leadership styles, investing in organizations led by people of color, and making long-term flexible commitments of capital, time, and capacity.

The new Southern Power Fund, organized by several organizations with deep roots in the region, typifies these approaches by providing no-strings-attached support to frontline community groups, many of them Black led. (The fund also supports organizations that serve LGBTQ people, disabled people, rural communities, and other communities of color.) Another collective effort, Grantmakers for Southern Progress, prioritizes grantmaking using an intersectional and racial equity lens to support the transformation of southern communities by addressing racial, gender, and economic inequity.

These and other efforts share the fundamental element of equitable grantmaking, namely a commitment to building authentic community partnerships, and to funding organizations led and trusted by the people they seek to serve. For philanthropy to make a difference in the lives of southern Black children, equitable grantmaking must be the bedrock of their efforts.


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