Economic Development and Human Resources

Grand Rapids ranks among worst economically for African-Americans

January 22, 2015
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City ranks among worst economically for African-Americans
A group of people marches in downtown Grand Rapids on MLK Day. Photo by Mike Nichols

For all of its growth in recent years, Grand Rapids still has a long way to go to make itself more economically friendly for African-Americans.

The week before the nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a demographer and contributor to Forbes.com pointed out one of Grand Rapids' flaws, ranking the city the second-worst city in the nation in the post "The cities where African-Americans are doing the best economically."

Of the 52 largest cities in America, Grand Rapids ranks 51st, beating out Milwaukee, which was ranks at the bottom.

Methodology

The post's author, Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban studies at Orange, Calif.-based Chapman University, says the ranking is based on three metropolitan statistical area, or MSA, measures: homeownership, entrepreneurship or self-employment and median household income. Data was taken from 2013. 

The ranking also considers a fourth factor, demographic trends, which incorporated data that measured the change in African-American populations in the metro areas from 2000-2013. 

Each factor was given equal weight.

The bottom group

“Many of the metro areas at the bottom of our list are the once-mighty manufacturing hubs where Southern blacks flocked in the Great Migration: last place Milwaukee, followed by Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cincinnati (50th); Pittsburgh (tied for 48th), Cleveland (47th) and Buffalo (46th),” Kotkin writes.

“African-Americans in these old industrial towns earn on average $10,000 to $15,000 less than their counterparts in Atlanta (1st). Self-employment rates are half as high as those in our top 10 cities.”

"Data confirms"

One of the many people working hard to improve the city economically for African-Americans is Jamiel Robinson, founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses. Robinson said that although he knew Grand Rapids had poor economic numbers for African-Americans, he was initially surprised by the ranking in the report.

“Growing up here, there are things you know instinctively, but when data confirms it, you’re like, ‘I knew I wasn’t crazy,’” Robinson said. “I didn’t expect it to be that low, although I knew we weren’t great.”

Grand Rapids is home to about 40,000 African-Americans, who make up between 20 percent and 21 percent of the population, Robinson said. 

Robinson said the fact that the city has such a small population of African-Americans compared to other cities on the list might have led to the lower ranking. He also believes Grand Rapids received a low economic ranking, because of the city’s history of institutional racism, which eventually led to a system of hyper-segregation.

Robinson added that Grand Rapids needs to create economic models and policies that will lift up neighborhoods suffering from economic depression and low employment, as well as work to train talent in the African-American community, particularly in urban schools.

“(The city needs) intentionality in terms of equity and policies . . . geographic tools to create more economic growth within the African-American community,” Robinson said. “And not minimizing or saying, ‘Oh, we’re past that,’ because news article after news article and study after study shows we’re not past that.”

Top 10 cities "Where African-Americans are doing the best economically"

1.   Atlanta
2.   Raleigh, N.C.
3.   Washington, D.C.
4.   Baltimore
5.   Charlotte, N.C.
6.   Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Va.
7.   Orlando, Fla.
8.   Miami
9.   Richmond, Va.
10. San Antonio, Texas

Source: Forbes, 2015

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