fresh voices from the front lines of change







In “Finishing the March: African-Americans and the Jobs Deficit,” I attempted to explain how the disappearance of good jobs, with benefits, and livable wages hit African-Americans particularly hard.

There are a number of reasons for the employment gap between African Americans and white Americans. African Americans have suffered an epidemic of unemployment in this recession, as a result of preexisting economic conditions that went untreated for decades. Barbara Ehrenreich writes that a legacy of discrimination in hiring and lending made African Americans less likely to be cushioned against the economic downturn. In 2008, just before the country plunged into recession, the average African-American family had only one dime in savings for every dollar the typical white family had.

The disappearance of “good jobs” with livable wages is another factor in the persistence of high unemployment among African Americans — particularly African-American men. Since 1979, America’s economy has lost nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs, more than 3.5 million of which were lost between 2000 and 2006. The loss of those jobs was driven by a decline in unionization, industry deregulation, and increased outsourcing of state and government services.

African-American men were hit particularly hard, because they were overrepresented in these jobs. In many case, these jobs were the best that black men could get, especially if they lacked a college education. The wages and benefits in these jobs provided many with an opportunity to rise into the middle class. In many cases those wages and benefits were fought for and won by unions.  The decline of union membership that accompanied the loss of these jobs was a double whammy to the economic dreams of black working men and their families, who lost the benefits of union membership in the bargain.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. This animated GIF from the Center for Economic Policy Research, explaining where good jobs have gone for Black workers, popped up in my reading queue over the 4th of July holiday. It does a good job of illustrating what’s happened to African-American workers over the last few decades.


Where Have Good Jobs for Black Workers Gone?

The animation illustrated the CEPR report, “Has Education Paid Off For Black Workers?”, which finds that while Black workers are better educated and older than they were thirty years ago, they are still less likely to be in a good job than they were in 1979.

As I wrote in “Finishing the March,” it certainly doesn’t appear that education has paid off for African-Americans, in terms of jobs and upward mobility. More African Americans complete high school and attend college than did on the occasion of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Only 15 percent lack a high school diploma today, compared with 75 percent in 1963. More than three times as many African-Americans are enrolled in college today than were in 1963. Today, there are five college graduates for every one graduate in 1963. Yet the unemployment gap between African-Americans and white Americans has only closed 6 percent since the March on Washington, and the income gap closed just 7 percent.

If that’s not bad enough, the sequester is likely make matters worse for African-American workers. Public sector job losses accelerated in March, when the sequester kicked in. Again, as I wrote earlier, this is particularly bad news for African-American workers.

As the recession continues, conservative economic policies have only made things worse for African Americans in terms of employment. Deficit- and sequester-driven spending cuts have led to layoff and job losses in the public sector. African Americans are disproportionately represented in the public sector workforce, and thus disproportionately impacted by public sector cuts.

According to economists and government data, about one in five African Americans work in the public sector, and are one-third more likely than whites to be employed in the public sector. With manufacturing jobs in decline, public sector jobs became an alternate path to the middle class for many African-Americans. Now the Black middle class is threatened by the loss of those jobs, too.

Facing a dearth of good jobs with livable wages, many African Americans who couldn’t find public sector employment turned to low-wage jobs in food service and retail. Low-wage jobs come with a economic high price, in the form of a “lost decade” of economic growth. There’s a high personal price to be paid as well. The working poor who fill these jobs are disproportionately African American or Latino.

In the spirit of the March Washington, low-wage workers in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Washington DC, and Detroit, have taken to the streets to demand livable wages, better working conditions, and the right to unionize. Strikers call for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which would be a livable wage in some cases.

Perhaps someone will create animation for the impact of public sector job losses on Black workers. That might offer a more complete picture of the ongoing story of African-American job loss, but it still won’t be a pretty picture.

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