Two of every five black Iowans didn’t always live in poverty.

In the 1970 and 1980 censuses, for example, their poverty rate was 28 percent. It jumped to 37 percent in 1990, and was at 32 percent at the turn of this century in 2000.

But the 2010 census showed 43 percent of black Iowans living in poverty – 7 percentage points from being half of the state’s black residents.


The poverty rate for white Iowans, meanwhile, dropped from one in four in 1960 to one in 10 in 1970 through the 2010 census.


Latino poverty has been somewhere in the middle since 1970, at 27 percent. But all things are relative – the Latino poverty rate in 1960 was 13 percent.

How did Iowa end up being a state where black and Latino poverty rates exceed the national rates of 27 percent for blacks and 25 percent for Latinos?

Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Low end jobs and inadequate wages, mostly related to a lacking of education and training opportunities, have contributed to rising poverty among Iowa’s black and Latino residents, Iowans dealing with the gaps said in interviews.

“Martin Luther King’s dream of equality didn’t stop with ‘we can make sure blacks and whites can go to the same school’. It was really bigger than that.” Fort Dodge community leader Charles Clayton said.

Charles Clayton, executive director, AFES, Fort Dodge

“And we should be looking at ways to make it more of an equal playing field when it comes to businesses, home ownership, sending kids to college, passing on your legacy or wealth to your children.”

He spoke in a special project, Iowa’s Opportunity Gap, in which IowaWatch examined racial achievement inequality in the state in collaboration with the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Burlington Hawk Eye, Fort Dodge Messenger and West Liberty Index.


U.S. Census Bureau data from 1960-2010 revealing disparities between whites, African Americans and Latinos were compiled by the Colorado-based, nonprofit journalism organization I-News and made available for the project through the nonprofit IowaWatch.

The 2010 median family income for white Iowans was $62,423, while black families earned half of that – $26,760, census data for the state show. The median income of Latino families was $38,030, the census data show.

Income inequality in the state has grown dramatically since 1960 when white family median income was $5,050, black family median income was $4,350 and Latino family median income was better than either, at $6,550.

Jobs become the focus in bids to close the gaps, although finding time and resources to do that on a community level is not easy.

Leaders for Athletics for Education and Success (AFES) — a Fort Dodge group led and co-founded by Clayton that teaches life skills to young people through sports camps, clinics and after-school programs — has tried setting up a fund to help start minority businesses. They call the effort the Martin Luther King Development Fund.

But some of the committee’s members have moved out of town and the fund is dormant, with no money disbursed, Clayton said. Remaining committee members want to keep the idea alive, he said.

“Because it may be harder for a minority, it may be more difficult for someone of low income status to go to the bank and get a traditional loan. Maybe the committee can help. Or that was the plan the committee had developed,” Clayton said.

Central Iowa Shelter and Services Director Tony Timm said education and training can help the impoverished get back on their feet.

Timm said his Des Moines shelter has a service wing with a classroom and 46 computer stations. Des Moines Area Community College teaches GED classes there twice a week. “The reality is that, at the end of the day, everybody is still a person regardless of where they come from. We all have the same hurdles to overcome,” Timm said.

logo iowa's opportunity gap_Featured
Credit: Jaime Vargas/IowaWatch


Latinos Unidos of Iowa President Lena Avila Robison said low wages are a hurdle for Latinos, especially if they are undocumented workers.

“If you are undocumented, for example, you are paid menial wages,” Robison said. “However, you pay for Social Security, you pay all the same things you and I pay,” she said, referring to wages withheld by employers and sent to the federal government. “They will never see a dime of that money.”

Robison said, “If you do a job and you’re doing it right, and you’re a human being doing it just like the one next to you, then they should be equal wages.”

On June 20, Gov. Terry Branstad signed House File 604, an education appropriations bill with $5.5 million for adult education and literacy programs at community colleges and $15.3 million for workforce training and economic development funds that would help minorities with little education or job skills.

Rob Denson, President, Des Moines Area Community College

Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson said the appropriations will help prepare more Iowans for middle skill jobs. “We’re working very hard because there are so many open jobs in Iowa,” he said. “We really need to bring more diverse populations into the workplace, particularly Latinos.”

The Iowa Skills2Compete Coalition, a group promoting workforce development policies and including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and the Iowa Association of Community College Presidents, reports that 56 percent of jobs in the state are middle skill jobs, yet only 33 percent of Iowa workers have the necessary qualifications to do them.

HF 604 met many of the Coalition’s stated goals. Robison is skeptical of administrative costs eating into direct training.


Jose Duran, a Tyson Foods line worker who has lived in West Liberty since 1993, said government leaders in Iowa could help if they simply were more interested in Latino culture.

“Because the Latinos, we are many. And now we are no longer illegal. The majority have papers,” Duran said, speaking Spanish. “We are citizens, Americans, and even if we don’t speak English well we contribute to the country.”

That language barrier to which he refers is huge when it comes to Latinos getting a job.
“Thank God, Tyson is the only plant that pays equally whether you speak English or not,” said Duran, who has been at Tyson’s Columbus Junction plant for 20 years, dating to before Tyson owned it. “… I have friends there who are Americans and they are earning the same amount.”

Hourly production wages at the plant range from $13 to $15.25 an hour, while maintenance pay reaches $19.05 an hour, Tyson media relations director Gary Mickelson said in an email. Benefits include health, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage, paid vacations and holidays, a 401K-retirement savings plan, a stock purchase plan and tuition reimbursement program, he wrote.

Latinos represent the largest percentage of the Columbus Junction workforce, followed by Caucasians, Asians and Blacks, Mickelson said.

West Liberty Foods turkey processing plant is a major source of work for Latinos in West Liberty, Iowa, on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.
Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

West Liberty is 52 percent Latino and the home of West Liberty Foods, which is owned by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative and where many local Latinos get jobs. However, many Latino families, ingrained in the community because their families have lived there for decades, own businesses as well.

Latinos could do more to advance if they sought higher education, West Liberty City Councilman Jose Zacarias said, but many he knows don’t realize that.

“The main reasons behind our presence here are economic reasons,” Zacarias said. “Once you see your kids working and the income starts getting better, you think that that’s it.”

And so, they remain stuck in entry-level jobs without the qualifications to advance without further education at a community college or four-year school, he said.

The Rev. Gregory Steckel was walking down a street in West Liberty with a reporter in August, talking about the town’s transformation into having a Latino majority. “Well, it’s a unique spot,” Steckel, a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church, said.

Amid the lengthy discussion about cultural diversity he talked about the “old” West Liberty and “new” West Liberty. The turkey processing plant, West Liberty Foods, plays a big role in “new” West Liberty, he said. It provides jobs, and the people who work there need housing, he said.

Both lead to spending and growth. So, is the community growing? the reporter asked.

“Right. Exactly,” the priest replied. “Because of the possibility of a job. Very low unemployment rate—almost nonexistent. It’s just a real strange phenomenon.”

Lauren Mills and Lyle Muller of IowaWatch contributed to this story.


Blacks, Latinos Falling Behind When It Comes To Opportunities In Iowa

Graduation rates for black, Latino Iowans not keeping up in the last half century

Moves In Iowa Are Aimed At Reducing The State’s Black Imprisonment Rate

Blacks, Latinos In Iowa Struggle To Raise Home Ownership Rates

Commentary: Iowa Needs Problem Solvers To Narrow Opportunity Gaps

I-News analysis by Burt Hubbard. Read the I-News special report on Colorado that produced the data IowaWatch used for this story: Losing Ground: An I-News Special Project

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. For more I-News stories, please go to

I-News and IowaWatch are members of the Investigative News Network, which includes more than 80 nonprofit news organizations.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

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