On his first job out of college as a corrections officer for St. Louis County in 1984, Perez Maxwell noticed that no black men had social work roles. When he sought a promotion to social worker two years later — a position he said he had the education and training to win — he hit a wall.
That was just the first of several jobs where Maxwell observed that he and his black colleagues lost out on leadership roles that went to white counterparts with similar education.
He can’t help but think that helps explain why many black people in St. Louis continue to be paid much less than white people. Black households made 49 percent of what white households made in St. Louis, based on median incomes in the most recently available census data, which detailed how the nation changed in 2016.
Related: St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh talked about the income gap with Kae Petrin and William Tate:
That disparity in income has stayed largely consistent over the last five years, despite small gains for black households in the city. The 2016 income gap between black and white St. Louis families was wider than it was in 2005. That’s because the median income for white households increased by more than $10,000, while the median income for black households decreased by more than $1,000.
In the larger metro area, the difference in income was less severe: the median income of black households was 55 percent of that of white families.
Maxwell said that he made good money at his first job as a corrections officer. He had two bachelor’s degrees — one in theater, another in criminal justice and corrections — and applied for several promotions to become a social worker. Each time, he failed.
Eventually, Maxwell found out why.
“I had a [white] manager at that time who just frankly told me that I was too black and too radical to be a part of his staff, and that I could never expect to receive another promotion as long as he was the manager,” Maxwell said.
He made earned $24,000 as a corrections officer and took a $10,000 pay cut to become a teacher at a St. Louis Catholic school in 1989. He loved the job so much that he stayed at the school for 14 years. Maxwell said he wanted to stay in criminal justice longer, but had to leave because he didn’t have the chance to advance.
“The only job that I had that I was really making real money was when I was with justice services,” Maxwell said. “It took me a couple of years to build back up to where I was when I left justice services.”
A legacy of discrimination
In the metro region, a long history of discrimination and “hyper-segregated” neighborhoods have made it harder for black people to access opportunities, explained William Tate, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
“This income gap didn’t just start in 2005,” Tate said. “This has been here for a very long time.”
Tate studies “the geography of opportunity in metropolitan St. Louis” — how where people live can affect the rest of their lives.
Many people don’t have the information and guidance they need to find a higher-paying job or pursue college or technical degrees after high school, said Tate. But higher education doesn’t necessarily eliminate income inequality.
“Those who have been indigenous, here for long periods of time, may not have the same education levels,” he said. “Those who do may find themselves not having similar opportunities as those individuals who might be similarly educated.”
Maxwell said that when he did social work with the state of Missouri in 2005, he saw his black co-workers lose promotions to white counterparts with similar education.
There, he said he didn’t encounter the same sort of explicit discouragement he had in corrections. But he saw his black coworkers plateau, even if they wanted leadership positions.
“They’re usually not department heads, they’re usually not managers; some of them make it to supervisor, and that’s it. If you have aspiration to climb higher, that just doesn’t happen,” Maxwell said. The profile for becoming a leader in his department, he said, included “white.”
Many black families also face an immediate disadvantage in earning potential and expenses, compared to white families of similar education brackets and earnings, Tate said. That’s because in St. Louis, residential segregation and legalized discrimination prevented many black families from buying houses in the 1940s and ’50s or limited where they could live. And homeownership in so-called nice areas leads to good schools, which improves the long-term education of schools and health care for children.
Tate also said the region just doesn’t support enough programs that invest in neighborhoods and give people chances.
“You can see how our systems of opportunity are backlogged with individuals who want opportunity but they simply can’t get access to it,” he said.
Corey Robinson, 21, is just starting his working life, and he already feels like he and his coworkers are at a disadvantage.
“In my building I work in, the janitors are all black,” he said.
He works 30 hours a week at $8.50-an-hour for the contract company Centaur. “If you only make $8.50, you gotta use your money wisely,” he said. “Do you feel like eating today, or do you feel like getting on the bus?”
He spends an hour a day riding the bus round-trip from Florissant to Express Scripts in north St. Louis County. That costs him $20 per week — a big chunk of his pay. It's less than 10 miles, but he said he doesn't have more time to travel to a higher-paying job. Robinson said that he can’t afford a cell phone data plan for weeks at a time, and that he couldn’t recently visit the barber shop. He helps his mother pay bills every month, too.
Robinson said he dreams of leaving his janitor job, becoming an art teacher, and selling the abstract paintings he creates. But right now, his choices look limited. He doesn’t have the time or money necessary to search for a new job and save money to make a change. To even start the search, he says he’d need to have regular cellular access, good Wi-Fi — resources that he can’t afford.
Wealth, education and transportation are big factors
Tate cautions that the economic disparity between black families and white families goes beyond income, because most black families don’t have as much inherited wealth.
Measurements of income don’t capture differences in wealth — assets like homes or stocks that build finances, can be inherited, and help people increase their social position.
Tate also points to other factors that limit black family income in St. Louis.
To start, “the actual geography of our community is really lined up exactly like the income gaps you’re seeing,” Tate said. Higher-paying jobs in growing industries tend to cluster, and St. Louis is no different. Many opportunities lie west of the city, along Interstate 64 and in clusters around private universities.
“The best opportunities are largely in communities that are mostly white, and there are fewer job opportunities in places where the people indigenous to the opportunities are actually black,” said Tate, who notes that geography determines opportunity in many cities, but St. Louis’ separation may be an “extreme form.” He said, “The geography of opportunity is really a national phenomenon where people are not closely located to where opportunities are.”
Relying on public transit can also limit workers’ options.
For Robinson, taking public transportation to work costs money and time, and it also makes it harder for him to find a new job with higher wages. Many listings just aren’t close enough to him to commute on public transit.
About 75 percent of people who take public transit to get to work in St. Louis are black. In the entire metro area, about 64 percent of riders are black, according to census data. Black St. Louisans take public transportation to work at about three times the rate of black Americans nationwide.
“If there’s not appropriate transportation function to get you to where you need to go on a consistent basis, that is gonna inhibit your ability to maintain employment. It’s not an excuse; at scale, it becomes a problem,” Tate said.
Education also can be a major factor, Tate said. Low-performing school districts and inconsistent health care can make it harder for students to graduate and go on to higher education.
In St. Louis, people who have completed a bachelor’s degree are more than four times as likely to earn more than poverty wages.
Education is a major factor that drives income disparity nationally, according to Anne Winkler, the department chair of economics at University of Missouri - St. Louis. Winkler studies broader trends in the economics of family, welfare, and poverty.
“How do you even become a first-generation college-goer is a big issue,” said Winkler, who said the biggest hurdles are information and finances.
Navigating a college aid system is “especially a challenge for students who don’t have college-educated parents,” which on average is students from “minority backgrounds,” Winkler said.
Maxwell had trouble navigating financial aid himself. “It wasn’t about the availability of getting the loans; I just never thought about, ‘How was I going to pay all this back?’” he said.
At 59, Maxwell said he’s still repaying his student loans.
Given the difficulty that many African-Americans have making a good living in St. Louis, Maxwell said he understands why many of his friends and acquaintances move out of the city.
“As far as minorities are concerned, they go off to college, they get educated, and the first thing they want to do is find someplace else to live and work, other than where they grew up — which is St. Louis,” Maxwell said. “And it’s sad.”
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Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the details of Corey Robinson's commute.