Crystal Matthews

Crystal Matthews, 25, a certified nurse’s assistant, addressed the Ferguson Commission when it met on Monday, February 23 at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Rita Days, former state senator and former elections director of St. Louis County, listened attentively.

The sixth Ferguson Commission meeting held on the campus of the University of Missouri – St. Louis on Monday, February 23 put into perspective what one speaker described as the “geography of inequality” in the St. Louis region.

The night’s theme, economic inequality, became emotional as citizens offered personal testimonies about the struggle of living on a minimum-wage salary.

Defining the meeting’s tone was 27-year-old Danniel Polk. Polk broke down in tears while sharing her hardships as a single mother working for the McDonald’s in Ferguson for over 10 years.

Polk said she was heavily impacted by the unrest after Michael Brown Jr.’s death. She had to walk two and half hours to her job because she couldn’t afford a ride. Having started her job at McDonald’s at the age of 16, Polk still only makes $7.80 an hour.

“I just want to give my daughter the opportunity that I didn’t get the chance to have,“ Polk told the commission.

During the meeting, invited speakers came before the commission to present statistics and facts relating to poor and wealthy communities in the region.

One presenter, Laura Granich, director of Missouri Jobs with Justice, said the commission should advocate for raising the minimum wage in Missouri.

“The 22 top Missouri occupations for job growth all earn $25,000 a year or less,” said Granich.

Granich said the average age of a fast-food worker is 31-years-old and for the last eight years fast-food employment has had the highest job growth in St. Louis and Missouri.

“Even if every St. Louisan got a college education or high-skilled training, an employer's greatest need is still going to be someone to run the drive-thru, put products on the store shelves and take care of Grandma,” Granich said. “And right now, those jobs do not support us.”

Jason Q. Purnell, an assistant professor of social work and researcher at Washington University discussed trends of income inequality and wellbeing in the St. Louis area and United States.

According to “For the Sake of it All,” a group study led by Purnell, there is an 18-year disparity in life expectancy between a child who is born in the 63105 zip code (Clayton) versus a child born in the 63106 zip code (North St. Louis). That disparity in life span is explained by economics, he said.

“We know that 63106 has six-times the unemployment rate as 63105. We know that 63106 has almost eight-times the poverty rate as 63105,” Purnell said. “A household in 63106 has approximately one-sixth the median income of a household in 63105.”

For two zip codes that are less than 10 miles apart, Purnell said, “This is the geography of inequality in our region.”

“For the Sake of it All” researchers also compared poverty and unemployment rates between blacks and whites in St. Louis city and county. They found that African Americans in the region have an unemployment rate four-times higher than that of whites. The rate of unemployment for blacks in the region is at the same level as unemployment during the Great Depression.

“You have one population living in the Great Depression and another population recovering from the great recession,” said Purnell.

When the audience divided into four discussion groups, the conversation broadened to include housing, transportation, business and entrepreneurship.

Crystal Matthews, 25, a certified nurse’s assistant, joined the group that discussed housing. Matthews said subsidized housing should not be concentrated in specific areas.

“How do you expect a child to get a better education if you only put houses their parents can afford in certain areas?” Matthews asked.  

Matthews said lower-income families do not experience equal opportunity in public education.

“If you can’t afford a house in Clayton and can only afford one in Normandy, then your kids have to go to that school district,” Matthews said. “It all comes down to income.”

The Ferguson Commission will meet again 5-8:30 p.m. Monday, March 2 at the Missouri History Museum, McDermott Grand Hall. The topic: race.

This story was published as part of a partnership between The St. Louis American and The Huffington Post, www.huffingtonpost.com.

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