Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist in Sudden Infant Deaths

Racial and ethnic disparities persist in sudden unexplained infant deaths.
Andy Feltham / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

American Indian and Alaska Native families are much more likely to have an infant die suddenly and unexpectedly, and that risk has remained higher than in other ethnic groups since public health efforts were launched to prevent sudden infant death syndrome in the 1990s. African-American babies also face a higher risk, a study finds.

American Indians and Alaska Natives had a rate of 177.6 sudden, unexplained infant deaths per 100,000 live births in 2013 (down from 237.5 per 100,000 in 1995), compared to 172.4 for non-Hispanic blacks (down from 203), 84.5 for non-Hispanic whites (down from 93), 49.3 for Hispanics (down from 62.7) and 28.3 for Asians and Pacific Islanders (down from 59.3). The declines were statistically significant only among non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics and Asians/Pacific Islanders.

“There are still significant gaps and disparities between races and ethnicities,” says Lori Feldman-Winter, a professor of pediatrics at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, N.J., who wasn’t involved with this study and was a co-author of the most recent sleep guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, released last fall.

Overall rates of sudden unexpected infant death, which includes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) as well as accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed and other unexplained deaths, declined sharply in the five or so years after 1994, when a national campaign was launched to encourage caregivers to put babies to sleep on their backs. But the rates have not declined since 2000. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wanted to know whether those changes were uniform across racial and ethnic groups.

“We had the overall picture, but no one had really taken a close look at what was happening within that,” says Sharyn Parks, an epidemiologist at the CDC and an author of the study, published Monday in Pediatrics.

The reasons behind those changes, and why rates among American Indians/Alaskan Natives and African-Americans remain so much higher than those of non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics and Asians/Pacific Islanders aren’t known, though.

One important consideration is that the study didn’t control for socioeconomic or other factors, such as prenatal or postnatal exposure to alcohol or tobacco, or breast-feeding patterns. So disparities or changes might be influenced by other factors besides race and ethnicity, say, the differences in the prevalence of prenatal care, says Parks.

It’s also not possible to determine if of the public health campaign on safe sleeping played a role in reducing death rates.

An editorial accompanying the study notes that while non-Hispanic black infants saw death rates decline significantly, separate research has shown that African-Americans are also less likely than other racial and ethnic groups to embrace the safe sleeping recommendations. That suggests something else may have helped drive the improvement in that group, says Richard Goldstein, an author of the editorial and a pediatrician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital. He says it’s important to consider all the factors that might have helped improve survival, including advances in care for premature infants and a decline in the rate of women younger than 20 having babies. Both preemies and infants born to young mothers are at higher risk of sudden unexplained death.

Goldstein’s own research looks whether an underlying vulnerability might account for some sudden unexplained infant deaths, and possibly other infant deaths that occur soon before and after birth. For example, he and colleagues showed that sudden unexplained deaths in infancy and later in childhood were both associated with a brain abnormality usually seen in temporal lobe epilepsy. It’s not clear whether the abnormality caused the deaths, though.

Parks says research into potential biological factors, including brain abnormalities and genetic variations, is important. She also says that it’s essential to do more research on the assumption that continued disparities are in part due to differences in sleeping behaviors, such as bed sharing, between ethnic and racial groups, and what would help change those behaviors.

“Something continues to hamper the ability to get the message out, or for folks in different cultures to receive the message,” says Feldman-Winter. Socioeconomic status can be a big factor, she says; while the AAP recommends against bed sharing, she notes that some families may not be able to afford a crib.

“People should do whatever they can to reduce the risk,” says Goldstein.

Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She’s on Twitter: @katherinehobson.

African American Women Are Mad That This Lady Won Miss Black US

African American women are mad that this lady won Miss Black US…lol
This lady, Rachael Malonson, who looks more white than black won the 2017 Miss Black University of Texas pageant which held yesterday March 3rd and some African American women are livid. Lol

Rachael’s mum is white while her dad is half white and half black. Many feel she’s not qualified to win but then again, the pageant which has been hosted for 35 years at the University is open to all women who have some black genealogical history.

Source: Sungist

Peaceful founder of Durham African American dance group dies

— Chuck Davis, national dancer and founder of the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham, died Sunday morning surrounded by family, friends and loved ones.

Davis founded the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham in 1983, but his legacy of tolerance and respect is recognized worldwide. In his lifetime, Davis visited Africa more than 50 times and traveled to other countries as well, taking his message of peace and through dance and theater.

Davis once said his niche is carrying on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. “Let us all come together as a people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we have to be the same, but we can respect each other, and we can learn from each other, which is what it’s all about anyway.”

Catherine Hernandez’s novel brings a spotlight to a Toronto neighbourhood often left in the wings

Scarborough
By Catherine Hernandez
Arsenal Pulp Press
264 pp; $17.95

Scarberia. Having been born and raised in the generally lower-income east-end Toronto neighbourhood, this is how my friends and I have always referred to Scarborough, stamping it with the same doom and gloom our central and west-end neighbours did. For so many of us, it is a place to escape, to grow out of, the small town to the city’s bright lights. For others, it’s home, period. Often because, while something bigger may be our destination, for our immigrant parents, Scarborough was the destination.

This is a place established by the brown and black working class and a multicultural artistic community, proudly held up even while disregarded by the rest of Toronto. There is an authenticity to it, one well captured by activist and writer Catherine Hernandez in her new novel, titled – what else – Scarborough. It’s unusual to read about the streets I’ve been raised on, the parks where I used to play, the roads I still drive down now. Because for many Scarberians, this is a story never told and often considered not worth telling, and one that makes me want to relinquish that Scarberia moniker once and for all.

The novel follows the interconnected stories of three children living around the Kingston/Galloway area, each with their own battles. There is Bing, who is struggling with his sexual identity and his father’s mental illness; Laura, who has bounced from her mother to her unstable, neglectful father’s care; and Sylvie, who spends her days with her family in a shelter.

Arsenal Pulp Press

The three, along with their parents, build a community in their Scarborough school, where they are brought together by Hina, a literacy program coordinator who makes it her mission to not only better these children’s language skills, but to offer a place of refuge and safety in an environment where drugs, crime, poverty and racism run rampant.

The way Hernandez refers to the suburban non-white experience, layered by class difference, makes Scarborough not only a topical read, but an evergreen one. Victor, a young black artist who is beloved in the community, at one point recalls being ostracized (even by his own neighbours) after he is admonished by police for painting a mural for which he was given a grant. His fear is palpable in Hernandez’s writing: “I was told by so many, and trained by so many to protect myself, that the act of stiffening in the presence of hatred toward black men became, and still is, as routine as putting on a shoe. Rabbit ears through the loop. Pull the laces.”

Similarly, Hina associates the way one white parent looks at her hijab – venom in his eyes and words as he drags his daughter away from a moment of affection between teacher and student – to a time she was laying on a hospital bed for an emergency appendectomy. The foreboding and fear is painfully familiar. She thinks, “Something about it made me remember my subconscious understanding that I was being cut open. I was being dissected. Then I was being sewn up, with something missing inside. Something about that moment. It made me remember the scalpels. The bright lights. The blood.”

It’s the plight of the other, alive in everyday conversation, in everyday contempt, even within her own community.

But Hina serves as a caregiver, and there is a keen, incredibly moving familiarity in the way the novel’s mothers and mother-figures love their children – something I associate with my own, but thanks to Hernandez, now see as the unique touch of the immigrant mother: the soft caressing, the arms a wrap-around “fence,” “fierce kisses” that are “more a smell than a smooch.”

After being harshly bullied by his schoolmates, Bing’s mother holds him tight, a barrier from the outside world. He repeats to himself the mantra her arms remind him of: “I am loved. I will be loved. I am loved. I will be loved. I am perfect just the way I am. … I practically suffocated under her loving grasp, but I dared not escape. … I languished in the sheer size of me. I was forced to rejoice in every fingernail, every hair on my head, the dimples on my cheek.”

This rare intimacy is strong in Hernandez’s dedication to a child she once taught in a Scarborough community centre when she was only 15 and the child was four. “Wherever you are, I hope you are safe,” she writes, a notion that lingers throughout the book, not only a message to outsiders of what it means to live in this neighbourhood, but that we are in it together. It’s sentimental, but I couldn’t help but feel profoundly moved in these small moments. We are a community that is not often lent a megaphone, falling off at the edge of the city, but one that is very much alive, through art, music, food and family. We are more than what makes the 6 p.m. news.

As a story that touches on problems accustomed to a neighbourhood plagued by its poverty, however, at times Scarborough verges on after-school special, a Degrassi for the more troubled set. But the melodrama hinges on the interplay between its three sets of young eyes – elementary school children who don’t know any better, but are beginning to discover that their lives are not quite as privileged as some of their classmates’ and those they see on TV. It’s a heartbreaking realization to read as it unwraps, but it’s a worthy reminder that there are many versions of one community and this is just a spotlight onto one rarely seen.

From the Rouge Hill waterfront via the 54 bus route, to the little strip mall on Lawson and Centennial to the National Thrift on Lawrence and Kingston, to the mural on the Warden Station underpass (Jamaican patty in hand), this is a town coloured by its people, brutal when it’s rough, comfortably home when it feels like it or when it doesn’t. And this is a story on the reckoning of privilege and the acceptance of difference. Simply put, it’s a lot.

As one character reminisces while working at a family-owned restaurant serving dishes from back home, “People here want home. They want home because it is so darn cold outside, and all they want is their mom and dad or kids back where it’s warm. And green. They want it how it is back home. Looks ugly and tastes pretty. Simple. Served with a big spoon on a big plate. No fuss. No thinking about texture and height and taste journey or whatever. They just want home.”

Because if Scarborough is anything, it’s an amalgamation of culture, connected by families who have immigrated from warmer climates with spicier palates, who have left behind their own parents and siblings and friends to find a better place for their children. And in Toronto, that place is Scarborough – a home away from home.

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Motherhood and Marginalization: The Oppressive History of the Birth Industry

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

To say that the birth industry is mostly white would be an extreme understatement. Less than 4 percent of registered nurse midwives are African American, around 1 percent are of Asian descent and less than 1 percent are Latina according to a recent survey. A low level of representation is an issue in many industries, but in the birth world it is particularly problematic. The pervasive whiteness of the birth industry leads to culturally incompetent care that fuels the negative outcomes that women of color face both directly and indirectly. Low levels of cultural awareness lead to stereotyping and assumptions that fail to consider Black, Latina, Asian American, Arab American and Indigenous women’s unique circumstances and perpetuate ineffective methods of care. As a result, white values and experiences have interpenetrated the birth world and further isolated women of color.

Black mothers in particular have a maternal mortality rate that is more than four times the national average. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is an average of 12.1 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women, 40.4 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black women, and 16.4 deaths per 100,000 live births for “women of other races” (the CDC report does not break this number down further). Meanwhile Black babies have an infant mortality rate that is more than two times the national average.

Despite efforts from the World Health Organization (WHO) to combat maternal and infant mortality, maternal mortality rates in the United States continue to worsen, unlike those in other wealthy countries.

2017 0514m 2

Among the multitude of factors that have created this health crisis, toxic stress and the emotional manifestations of racism are key elements. Women of color are substantially more likely to deal with poverty, face language barriers and have limited access to health care. All of these make it difficult to receive adequate care. These environmental stressors are often overlooked by white birth workers who work with women of color.

This oversight was perfectly illustrated when Ina May Gaskin, a well-known natural birth advocate, answered questions about race and maternal mortality during a Birth Roundup hosted by Texas Birth Networks. After registered nurse Tasha Portley inquired about the connection between race and maternal mortality, Gaskin gave a roundabout answer that ultimately denied the impact of systemic racism on maternal care for mothers of color. Instead of addressing the combination of race and poverty, she spoke to the issues of poor white women, saying: “You couldn’t look at our numbers and have anything useful to say about it because the number of African American women would’ve been rather low. Poverty, we’ve got that covered. We were some of the poorest.” After she danced around the question, Portley informed her that once nutrition, smoking and finances were accounted for, race was a strong influencer of outcomes. In response, however, Gaskin merely emphasized the importance of prayer in managing stress. In reflecting on how unresponsive Gaskin’s comment was, Portley later commented, “We [Black women] are one of the most religious people on the planet.” Gaskin’s icon status has the ability to pass this culturally insensitive rhetoric on to the next generation of white birth workers. As a matter of fact, the room, filled with white birth workers, was unfazed and chuckled in affirmation of Gaskin’s comments. 

One Black birth worker speaking out in a sea of whiteness is a sample reflective of the birth industry. The lack of awareness and the cultural insensitivity that was displayed here is symbolic of the experiences of women of color across the nation. White birth workers are often unfamiliar with the consequences of systemic racism and look to class alone as the cause of health disparities. Even when women of color give firsthand accounts of our experiences, the birth industry ignores us.

Clearly, the high mortality rates are much more than a class issue — Black women with advanced degrees are more likely to lose their babies than white women with high school diplomas. 

Nikia Lawson is a birth worker of color located in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Birth Roundup took place. According to Lawson, above all else, it is most important to “trust Black women when it comes to their bodies.” Lawson works to fight health disparities in the birth community by educating mothers on pregnancy and postpartum care. “Birth workers of color have found ourselves in a position to really educate and shift the final birth outcomes of the expectant woman, who pretty much looks like us, who have experiences similar to ours — and we primarily understand the situations that our expectant mothers face,” Lawson told Truthout. After hearing Gaskin’s comments, Lawson took to her Facebook page, which is filled with both Black and white birth workers from around the world, to address the importance of collaborative effort in creating change.

What would change look like? For Black women, we need birth workers who understand we exist at the intersection of history, race, gender and reproductive health.

In Texas, where Lawson lives, the maternal mortality rate is not only the highest in the United States, but also the highest in the industrial world. Black women account for 11.4 percent of births in Texas but 28.8 percent of deaths.

Upon speaking to Lawson, it became clear the birth industry was not created with women of color in mind. She explained that the birth industry was established by white men and women, who “researched the impact of birth support [in] Indigenous culture, then brought the concept back to western society and began training women to serve.” Indigenous women and other women of color already had traditional methods for supporting birthing women that the newly trained white midwives drew upon heavily. In the early 1920s when many of these changes in the birth industry began, white women were in a better position to afford birth services outside of the home. As a result, the new developments in the birth industry mostly impacted white women.

The Rise of the Professional (White) Midwife

Birth workers of color have always existed.

2017 0514m 1

Prior to 1921, in the south, Black lay midwives — often known as “granny midwives” — provided medical care to poor and rural pregnant women. The Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921 was an attempt to create a more professional education path for birth workers that reduced mortality. Instead, it resulted in more obstacles for midwives, particularly Black women, to continue their work. Suddenly, a smear campaign portrayed lay midwives as dirty, uneducated and unqualified to handle births. Not unexpectedly, the discrediting of midwives was often rooted in racist ideas.  “Filthy and ignorant and not far removed from the jungles of Africa,” were the descriptors used by the director of the Board of Health, Felix Underwood, in 1926 in reference to Black midwives. (Strangely, Underwood himself facilitated midwifery programs.) In other words, racially based preconceptions, in addition to attacks from “professional” obstetrics, played a key part in the downfall of lay midwifery.

The newly emerged professional midwife was portrayed in a pristine white uniform to signify both sterile practices and a lack of individuality. It was apparent that midwives were now regulated followers of modern medicine. Even after training, Black midwives served as a placeholder until enough nurses were trained to assist obstetricians with births.

Midwives were also expected to serve as race gatekeepers during birth. Walter Plecker, a physician, county registrar and later state registrar of [Bureau of] Vital Statistics in Virginia enlisted midwives to “police the women they assisted so that no mixed-race children got the opportunity to ‘pass’ into the white world.” Filling out birth registers became primary concerns, and those who did this “incorrectly” lost their licenses.

Black midwives were placed between two contradicting systems. On one hand, they were supposed to assist in reducing maternal and infant mortality in their communities of origin. On another, they were used within the oppressive system that created these disparities to ensure no racial mixing. As expected, a system that gives high levels of effort to segregation of races has no time for culturally-sensitive care. From the institutionalization of midwifery, all matters of culture would be expected to take a back seat to enforcing systemic oppression. The numbers of Black midwives dwindled, but prior to this, the culture and spiritual nature of midwifery had already receded. The percentage of births attended by midwives in Richmond, Virginia, fell from 41 percent in 1907 to 18 percent in 1922. At the same time, doctor-attended births increased from 59 percent to 82 percent, according to “Maternal Mortality in Richmond: A Preliminary Survey” published in 1923 by C.C. Hudson and M.P. Rucker in the Virginia Medical Monthly. Over time, lay midwives were replaced by white nurses with higher levels of medical training.

Eventually, the industry became overwhelmingly dominated by white birth workers and practices that aligned with whiteness. Moreover, this shift decreased representation of midwives of color in the field and limited women of color’s access to midwives, since they could no longer afford home birth services. Soon the industry shift led to nearly 99 percent of US babies being born in hospitals.

In the face of these changes, what can be done to support birth parents of color in the current moment? “I think the best way to combat the issue of maternal mortality is to continue to educate moms about their options for their childbirth experience,” Lawson said, explaining that many people are unaware that it’s possible to access birth support outside what is offered in the hospital.

However, in the last 30 years, the birth industry has been changing. “Now, birth workers of color are seeking to support marginalized, disadvantaged, disproportionately affected communities that have adverse birth outcomes,” explained Lawson.

Black birth workers and other birth workers of color must not only create spaces to work within their own communities — they must reclaim a tradition that was wiped out by hate-based standardization. Ina May Gaskin’s comments were neither surprising nor unusual — they were the product of an industry that wasn’t established with Black women’s benefit in mind. The birth industry was never intended to serve women of color. It was created to police and reinforce an oppressive system. Acknowledging the whiteness of the birth industry means coming to terms with this fact and finding a way to transform an anti-Black institution.

LSU African American Cultural Center renamed

LSU is naming the African American Cultural Center after the university’s first black board chairman.

The Board of Supervisors voted Friday, without objection, to name the center after the late Clarence L. Barney Jr., of New Orleans and who had served as chairman in 1992. It is the second building on the LSU campus to be named after a person of color. (The other is an academic building named after A. P. Tureaud, the civil rights lawyer who initiated the lawsuits that forced the Orleans Parish School System to desegregate.)

Barney, who died in 2005 at the age of 70, had been president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans for more than 30 years, retiring in 1996. 

Barney also had served on the boards of the Louisiana Superdome Commission and Dryades Savings Bank. He was a graduate of Southern University. He received a master’s degree from Tulane University and did post-graduate study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Business School. He lectured nationally on social problems and the inner city economic development process.

“He was an important figure in building bridges between the black and white communities in New Orleans in the 1960s and 1970s,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans.

Barney had pushed to create a center for black students in 1970s. It was called the Harambee House, which closed a few years later. 

“We learn from Mr. Barney ‘hope’ that what we are doing as a board matters,” said Board member James M. Williams, a New Orleans lawyer. “We can look to Mr. Barney’s example and realize that we have hope that what we do will matter, that small things we do today will have a lasting impact on the university in the future.”

Williams recalled that as an LSU student in March 1991 he and other African American students sought a place to talk about Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers. But there was no place for them to gather safely on campus.

University administrators resisted efforts to open a center.

Barney brought the chancellor and vice chancellor to a meeting with the students and told the officials that their blocking of the request “ends right now. This center will open,” Williams remembered.

The entire renovation and furnishings for the center cost less than $20,000 in 1992, when LSU had about 300 African American students.

LSU President F. King Alexander reported the fall semester had more African American students enrolled than at any other time in the institution’s history. The university counted just over 3,741 African American students out of about 32,000 total enrollment.

Dereck J. Rovaris, vice provost for diversity, added that LSU now has more black students than about 70 historically black colleges and universities across the country.

Shawn Barney said his father felt LSU provided people in opportunities to improve their lives. He felt “LSU is the most important institution in the state of Louisiana.”

The Clarence L. Barney, Jr. African American Cultural Center is on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus at 3 Raphael Semmes Road. The street is named after the Confederate rear admiral who sailed the CSS Alabama, which raided Union commerce vessels around the world during the Civil War. Shawn Barney said the street name “reflects where they were then. This (the cultural center) reflects where they are now.”

The university plans to hold a rededication ceremony for the Clarence L. Barney Jr. African American Cultural Center during the fall.

City unveils draft action plan to combat anti-Black racism, asks ‘Did we get it right?’

Members of Toronto’s Black communities are hopeful about the recommendations in a newly-released draft action-plan to tackle anti-Black racism in the city, but many say just how to implement those ideas remains to be seen.

On Saturday afternoon, the city presented the draft — developed out of some 41 community conversations held between January and March of this year — at City Hall for feedback from the city’s Black community leaders and members. All in all, the city says, more than 800 people played a role in developing the plan.

“Our communities are lagging behind on a number of those socioeconomic indicators,” Amanual Melles of the African-Canadian Social Development Council told CBC Toronto. “I think there’s a good momentum, there’s committed leadership, the time seems to be right, we’re engaged in this process and I’m optimistic.”

The draft plan focuses on five key areas — each with tangible action items attached — which will be finalized before heading to the executive committee in June, followed by city council in July.

Tangible actions attached to 5 key areas

The five areas are:

  • Children and youth development, which includes increasing the number of “culturally appropriate” before and after school programs, increasing hiring of Black people, expanding resources for Black queer service providers and communicating with the province and school boards about the need for improvements to support safe learning.
  • Community engagement and Black leadership, which includes applying an “anti-Black racism lens” to the city’s complaint process, providing an incubation space for Black businesses and investing in Black arts and culture. 
  • Health and community supports, which includes improving the availability of mental health services for Black people, increasing the number of permanent Black health and social workers, expanding recreational programming, improving food access, ensuring Black seniors are represented in the city’s seniors strategy, and improving shelter and housing conditions.
  • Job opportunities and income supports, which includes increasing the employment and training opportunities for Black people at the city of Toronto, providing mentorship programs, promoting inclusive and equitable hiring practices and continuing to call on the province to raise social assistance rates. 
  • Policing and the justice system, which includes measures to stop racial profiling and the “over-policing” of Black people, reviewing use of force protocols, collect and publicly report mandatory race-based data, and making information about policing and the criminal justice system better available.

‘Waiting to see what the commitment is’

Black Lives Matter Toronto member Ravyn Wngz says she sees little in the draft report that she objects to. Instead, she wonders about how the city plans to implement the measures and who is left accountable if they don’t become reality.

“You can have the policies and the language and all of the information. John Tory already said it’s been 40 years of information and so I’m sure in that time people have given recommendations before… so I’m really wanting to see what the commitment is to these recommendations to make sure Black communities, Black people can have the spaces that they need for themselves to grow and expand and to be in control of our own lives,” Wngz said.

Denise Andrea Campbell

The city’s director of social policy analysis Denise Andrea Campbell says Saturday’s consultation was an opportunity to ask Toronto’s Black communities, “Did we get it right?” (CBC)

BLM Toronto was not involved in the consultations, she added, largely because the organization wanted those who have been working on these issues for much longer than the approximately three-year-old organization to take the lead.

The city’s director of social policy analysis Denise Andrea Campbell said Saturday’s consultation was an opportunity to ask Toronto’s Black communities, “Did we get it right?” 

While Campbell wouldn’t speak to BLM’s absence from the consultations, she acknowledged the organization was instrumental in prompting a conversation about anti-Black racism in the city, adding it was invited to participate throughout the process.

Ravyn Wngz

Black Lives Matter Toronto member Ravyn Wngz says she sees little in the draft report that she objects to. Instead, she wonders about how the city plans to implement the measures and who is left accountable if they don’t become reality. (CBC)

“Certainly we’re here in part today because they challenged governments to pay attention to the very real things that communities need,” she said.

For now, Wngz remains cautiously optimistic.

“What I’m really hopeful for is that the entire city will hold John Tory and all of Toronto city councillors accountable,” she said. “When one community is lifted up, all communities are lifted up and that’s what we’re looking for.”

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Retirement shortages hit Colorado minorities hardest

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — Every Tuesday and Thursday, Lupe Gonzalez helps Volunteers of America prep lunches for fellow seniors at the Northside Aztlan Center in Fort Collins.

She brews coffee, checks reservations, orders supplies and helps clean up afterward. There’s no charge for lunch, though a small donation is requested from those who can afford to pay. As a volunteer, Gonzalez gets her meals for free.

Those meals, which usually yield leftovers, help Gonzalez stretch her budget far enough to cover her monthly rent and gas costs.

Gonzalez, 71, spent decades working three jobs to support her family. But when disability ended her earning years, Gonzalez was struck by the reality that she hadn’t saved enough to support her own needs in retirement.

Gonzalez is among the nearly 6 percent of Larimer County seniors age 65 and older living in poverty — 2,196 residents whose primary financial support comes from Social Security and public assistance. She’s also among a group who fare worse than their peers, as 17 percent of Hispanic retirees in Larimer County are living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.

Nationwide, Hispanic and African American households have average retirement savings of $30,000, one-fourth of the $120,000 saved by white households, according to a 2013 report from the National Institute on Retirement Security.

Those realities are expected to strain social and senior services in the United States for decades, as even families on the high end of that savings range face monthly retirement income in the hundreds of dollars when thousands are often needed. An average of 10,000 Baby Boomers are expected to reach age 65 each day for the next 20 years, and about half of them have failed to save enough, if anything, to meet their basic retirement expenses.

While it’s too late for Gonzalez and her peers to improve their retirement, it’s not too late a new generation of young adults who can start saving now.

“Even if you contribute small amounts now, the dollars will grow,” said Vickie Bajtelsmit, professor of finance and real estate at Colorado State University. “It gets you in the habit of not having that money to spend and it’s really important for long-term savings.”

But a growing number of minority and low-wage earners in Larimer County face numerous challenges on the road toward a comfortable retirement.

SENIORS STRAIN SOCIAL SAFETY NETS

As a young mother fleeing an abusive marriage, Gonzalez gave little thought to retirement. Working three jobs provided enough money to put food on the table and keep a roof over her family, but left little to set aside for her own future.

She never considered not working until her mid-50s, when a series of health problems including a stroke left her disabled. Today, she lives with her little dog, Pancho, on $903 a month in Social Security disability payments.

Getting by “is not easy, let me tell you,” she said. Portraits of Christ interspersed with family photos on the walls of Gonzalez’s small, tidy living room help her keep a positive attitude. Without God, she said, “I would have given up a long time ago.”

Her situation is not uncommon among Fort Collins seniors who spent decades scraping by on low-wage or low-skill jobs only to be plunged deeper into poverty in retirement.

While Social Security was designed as a safety net to supplement other retirement assets, 21 percent of married couples in the U.S. and about 43 percent of unmarried people rely on it for 90 percent of more of their retirement income, according to the Social Security Administration.

In the absence of other assets, seniors often must continue working or face crippling poverty over a retirement that could last 20 or 30 years. About 20 percent of retirees are now working, either through choice or necessity, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“White-collar folks aren’t ready to retire at 62 or 65,” said CSU regional economist Martin Shields. “Blue-collar workers have had their bodies beat to hell and they’re ready to be done,” he said. “Unfortunately, they might be the ones who can least afford to retire.”

After a life spent working to sustain her family, Gonzalez found herself in that situation. Unable to work, Gonzalez relies on Fort Collins’ Housing Catalyst for rent assistance and the Food Bank for Larimer County for when the money runs out before the bills stop coming.

“I make sure all my bills are paid before I buy food,” Gonzalez said. “If there’s nothing left, there is always the food bank.”

As the national dialogue focuses on savings of the average retiree, Bajtelsmit said some special groups are in really bad shape: The disabled, widows and divorcees who have not remarried and the long-term unemployed.

“Those groups are not going to be able to retire comfortably,” she said. “We have safety nets, but those are groups that won’t qualify for much Social Security and may not qualify for any. From a societal standpoint, how will be manage helping those people?”

Those who can save adequately for retirement during their working years are more likely to be self-sufficient when they retire, according to the Bell Policy Center. They will need less help from family and social programs and be better positioned to pass assets along to the next generation. Those who are not able to save adequately are more likely to live in poverty and need help making ends meet.

Younger workers will be less able to save for their own futures as more of their resources are needed to help support their parents and grandparents.

ADDRESSING EDUCATIONAL GAPS A KEY SOLUTION

People of color are especially vulnerable to economic hardship and reliance on public assistance in old age, according to a 2013 report from the National Institute on Retirement Security.

Hispanics face unique financial challenges in retirement because of lower education and skill levels and language barriers among immigrants, according to a national report from the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that researches economic and health care policy.

While this story is about retirement, preparation for the latter chapters of our lives starts the moment we enter school. A good education can lead to better, higher-paying jobs which provide increased access to wealth, including home ownership and retirement plans.

“We know education pays off,” said John Feeley, spokesman for Front Range Community College, which, like Colorado State University, has a program for first-generation college students.

Among older Hispanics, 45 percent never finished high school compared to 27 percent of blacks and 11 percent of whites, according to the Urban Institute.

That’s why Irish Elementary School in Fort Collins has a robust outreach program between teachers and its predominantly Hispanic families to ensure students get a solid education and can begin breaking the cycle of poverty.

“We try to educate families as much as we can and connect them to different programs and activities in the community that will give them that knowledge of how to have a better life,” said Ana Ordonez-Velasco, family liaison at Irish.

“I am 100 percent sure that all our families who have moved here from other countries, their goal is to have their kids succeed — especially in education. That’s why they made the change in their lives.”

Elva Ramos, 59, tells her granddaughter, Daisy, nearly daily to study hard and stay in school so she can achieve her dreams. While Daisy is only 6, she wants to be a doctor, or maybe a ballerina, Ramos said.

Whatever Daisy wants to do, “education means a lot,” said Ramos, who dropped out of school after her sophomore year. Daisy’s mother never finished high school, either.

Now, Ramos wants to ensure Daisy faces an easier future. “She’s such a smart little kid,” Ramos said. “I hope she grows up to be what she wants. I will do my best to help her meet her goals.”

Daisy has “really opened up” since she started attending Irish Elementary when she was 3, her grandmother said. “I keep talking to her about not leaving school, ever. As Daisy grows up, friends at school may tell her differently, Ramos said. “But I tell her, don’t listen. Always study. If anyone tells you otherwise, talk to us or talk to the teacher.”

Ramos suffered a stroke in 2009 and is on full disability, living on just more than $700 each month. She recently moved from Fort Collins to Greeley where housing is less expensive.

She never made a lot of money when she was working, between $400 and $500 a week, but regrets not putting anything aside for the future.

“I never thought about retirement, I never heard my parents talk about it and I was never educated about it,” Ramos said. “Now, I think ‘Wow,’ I could have had money saved from a long time ago but I don’t. Now I can’t because I barely make it on what they give me.”

She’s teaching Daisy to save her money. “It doesn’t matter if it’s $10 in savings. It will add up, but she needs to always put money in there and not touch it.”

LOW-INCOME WORKERS LACK ACCESS TO RETIREMENT

Saving enough to retire comfortably requires not only planning, but access to and participation in employer-sponsored or individual retirement accounts.

However, nearly half of all private-sector workers in Colorado work for employers that do not offer pensions or 401(k) savings plans. That leaves 753,972 Coloradans without access to the easiest and best way to save for retirement and begin accumulating wealth, according to the Bell Policy Center.

Lack of access to retirement savings plans means a “significant portion of Colorado’s private-sector workers will be almost totally dependent on income from Social Security in retirement,” the center said in a study on retirement in Colorado. “Yet Social Security is only intended to replace about 40 percent of a worker’s income.”

White workers in Colorado are 30 percent more likely to work for an employer that offers a workplace retirement plan than minority workers and are 40 percent more likely to participate in a plan when offered, the study said.

“A lot of different groups have various problems saving for retirement,” said Bajtelsmit, the CSU finance professor. “The group that doesn’t have problems saving are generally white-collar workers with access to employer-provided retirement plans and higher incomes.”

On the opposite side are hourly workers and those with below-average incomes, more often women and minorities working at places that don’t offer retirement plans or employer contributions, Bajtelsmit said.

“It’s pretty difficult for a lot of households to find that money to contribute,” she said. “They have to make a conscious decision to forgo something else and sometimes it’s not possible.”

Higher income earners aren’t necessarily better savers, “but there is a statistical link in that people who are in good shape financially typically have a better education,” Bajtelsmit said. A college education typically leads to higher income and more wealth over a lifetime.

But education is only one piece of a complex retirement puzzle that may include unexpected expenses, as Doris Hine discovered.

The 78-year old former CSU professor had a comfortable retirement in front of her until her husband, George, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

His illness cost Hine her house, her retirement, her savings and family inheritance.

In some ways, it cost Hine her life.

When George was diagnosed, Medicaid required the couple to spend almost everything they had on George’s care before the federal program would pay for a nursing home, where he lived for 10 years before his death.

Her one big regret in life: “That I didn’t divorce my husband when he was diagnosed to protect my assets. I just couldn’t do it,” she said, her shoulders slumping, her eyes filling with tears.

Today, Hine lives in a basement apartment with her disabled 55-year-old son, Blair, his 10-year-old springer spaniel Hannah, and her small framing business, Myriad.

She lives on $1,320 in Social Security, spending $950 of it on rent. Blair gets about $700 in disability, some of which pays for a few groceries, a cellphone and cable, she said. Framing sometimes brings in another $100 a month.

Hine’s 1997 Mercury Mountaineer broke down four months ago and there’s no money to get it fixed, so she walks the couple blocks to Beavers Market to get all the groceries Blair can carry a couple times a week.

She counts her money down to the last penny.

“It took a while to figure it out, but I learned what I needed to do and stuck to it,” she said. “I go without, I wear beat-up shoes and my underwear is falling apart.”

She skimps on medicine when needed. When she does buy clothes it’s from ARC thrift store.

Still, she says she’s luckier than many. “I feel like a millionaire when I talk to some folks like homeless veterans and the disabled,” she said. “I just make do with what I have and go with the flow.”

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Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com