fresh voices from the front lines of change







When President Obama formally unveils his fiscal 2014 budget on Wednesday, a lot of the progressive movement focus will be on his plan to cut Social Security benefits through a reduced cost-of-living adjustment called the "chained CPI." But there will be another scandalous policy decision reflected in that budget as well, and this one is a sin of omission: There will not be an all-out effort to address the depression-level unemployment conditions among African Americans.

The Sinking American Electorate

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In that is a convergence of misplaced economic priorities and foolhardy politics. The African-American community is the most solid bloc of what Democracy Corps calls the "rising American electorate." It is the bloc whose unity around Barack Obama propelled him into the White House in 2008 and kept him there in 2012. But among African-American voters there are a significant segment that has complained for years that their votes are taken for granted by the Democratic party, and among no small number of African-American thinkers, very little has happened in the Obama administration to soften their concerns.

The rejoinder to those who assert that African Americans don't have much to show for their votes for the Democratic Party continues to be that "the Republican party is worse." But while the Republican Party remains too tied to America's Jim Crow past to win significant shares of African American votes, Democrats could still lose in 2014 and beyond when for millions of African-American voters "not much" to show for their loyalty becomes "not enough" to show up at the polls.

An Economic Crisis

Friday's job report was the continuation of a decades-long story of the nation still living with the echoes of its racist past. Unemployment among African Americans was measured at 13.3 percent. That's more than one in eight African Americans looking for work but nonetheless out of a job. The white unemployment rate is half that, at 6.7 percent.

The persistence of disproportionate African-American unemployment is a capstone of the "heads-they-win-tails-we-lose" persistence of African Americans getting the worst when the economy declines and the least when the economy grows.

That pattern was repeated during the Great Recession. An essay on the black middle class in the National Urban League's "State of Black America 2012" report contains some of the stark details, concluding that "almost all of the economic gains of the last 30 years have been lost" since late 2007, and worse, "the ladders of opportunity for reaching the black middle class are disappearing."

In 2010, the median household income for African Americans was 30 percent less than the median income of white households 30 years ago. African-American household income fell more than 2.5 times farther than white household income during the Great Recession, 7.7 percent versus 2.9 percent. Home ownership rates also fell for African Americans at roughly double the rates of whites, essentially wiping out the gains in home ownership since 2000. Today, more than a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line, compared to about 10 percent of white people.

A newly released report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies also underscores the severity of economic conditions among African Americans. That report focused on black unemployment rates in 25 states with large African-American populations starting when the economy was at its peak in 2006. "In 2006, prior to the recession, the unemployment rate in the black community was already at recession levels in every one of the 25 states we studied, from 8.3% in Virginia to 19.2% in Michigan, and in 20 of the 25 states the unemployment rate for African Americans was above 10%," the report said. "In 2011, more than two years after the economic recovery began, unemployment rates for African Americans across most age, gender and education categories remained significantly higher than their pre-recession rates."

In fact, the jobless rate for African Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 in these states was 29.5 percent in 2011, two years after the recession had supposedly ended.

"If the national unemployment rate was anywhere near these percentages, we'd be in crisis emergency mode," said Ralph B. Everett, president of the Joint Center, during a discussion of the report last week.

Instead, the "crisis" that has the attention of the Washington political class is the federal debt, and even the Obama administration has now caught some of the fever. This fixation dictates that the federal government not be able to devote the resources necessary to address this crisis. While members of the "Fix the Debt" crowd – overwhelmingly white and disengaged from the day-to-day struggles of African-American communities – pleads concern about the debt that will be handed down to their children, no one speaks of the consequences that the continuing economic depression experienced by millions of African-American households will have on the next generation.

There is no question what majorities of African-American voters consider to be the real threat to their long-term economic interests – it is not the federal deficit, but the inaction in Washington driven by the conservative fixation on the deficit. In a Democracy Corps focus group on the economic priorities of the "rising America electorate," almost three out of four African Americans agreed with a statement that said that while reducing the deficit is important, we must "invest in education, protect retirement security, and reduce health care costs in a balanced way" in order to "invest in growth that creates good middle class jobs." Fewer than one in five agreed with the argument used by congressional Republicans that "our biggest problem is that we spend too much" and that "we must cut spending, including Medicare and Social Security" while protecting the wealthy from tax increases.

The statement that won overwhelming African-American support in the Democracy Corps survey happens to parallel the three issues that were listed as top priorities of African Americans surveyed in the group: retirement benefits, affordable education and affordable health care. It is a list largely borne out of the day-to-day experiences of African-American households. Of those who were surveyed, 48 percent had cut back on purchases at the grocery store, 25 percent had seen their wages or benefits at work reduced, 22 percent had lost a job, 32 percent had moved in with family or had family move in with them to save money, 13 percent had fallen behind in their mortgage and 11 had been affected by cuts to unemployment benefits.

The Agenda We Need

The Democracy Corps survey also picked up something that should be very worrying to the Democratic Party. In a generic "who would you vote for if the election were held today" matchup, African-American support for Democrats fell from 90 percent at the beginning of the year to 85 percent in March. And only 71 percent of African Americans surveyed said they were "almost certain to vote" in the 2014 elections after having voted in 2012, compared to 78 percent of white voters. Yes, it is a relatively small sample in one poll and campaigning for the first of the midterm elections is still at least eight months away.

But it pays to remember 2010, when African Americans were only 10 percent of the electorate, down from 13 percent in 2008. According to the Joint Center for Political Studies, 16 of the 60 seats Democrats lost in the House that year were in districts in which at least 10 percent of the electorate was African American.

Turnout rebounded strongly in 2012, perhaps as much in reaction against the Republican Party and Republican-backed voter suppression efforts as it was a desire to keep President Obama in the White House and increase Democratic Party power in Congress.

What could energize African-American turnout in 2014 that was absent in 2010? The answer is clear: Candidates speaking directly to the economic depression in African-American communities with a plan to rebuild the rungs on the ladder of upward mobility, including putting people back to work at good jobs; quality, affordable education; accessible health care and retirement security.

To be fair, President Obama has frequently touted a jobs program that would put additional money into infrastructure spending and schools, and he has in the past championed the kind of green energy investments that can provide a broad range of new job opportunities in high-unemployment communities. He has promised more of the same in the upcoming budget proposal. But President Obama's proposals have never been proportional to the need, trimmed by the political constraints imposed by an obstructionist Republican opposition and timid Democratic allies.

That opposition in the immediate term certainly renders out of reach anything on the scale of the Congressional Progressive Caucus infrastructure plan, which would not only add 7 million jobs in the first year but would produce a sizable share of those jobs in communities and job categories where African Americans are strongly represented. But President Obama and Democratic party elected officials should want to be seen as leading the fight for economic justice and equality for African Americans, hastening the day when economic disparities rooted in America's legacy of racism are eradicated once and for all. Accepting the limits imposed by the inheritors of the Confederate legacy may appear politically expedient, but it is the way of moral and electoral bankruptcy.

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