“The Disappearing Black Middle Class” ran the headline over the Chicago Sun-Times story. And the statistics from the Economic Policy Institute were indeed sobering.
In 2007, best year of the Bush era, white households had a median net worth of $134,280, compared with $13,450 for black households.
By 2009, the median net worth for white households had fallen 24 percent to $97,860. For black households, it had plummeted 83 percent to $2,170, a near wipeout.
As Algernon Austin of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy put it, “In 2009, for every dollar of wealth the average white household had, black households had two cents.”
One explanation for this surely is the wave of foreclosures on subprime mortgages, a large share of which were held by African-Americans.
But while unemployment among white men has surged in the Great Recession, among black men it has hit 16 percent, the highest level since the Department of Labor began to keep records in 1972.
Ominously, things are likely to get worse, because Bill Clinton’s assertion, “The era of big government is over!” is today palpably true.
Not only in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey, run by Republicans, is this so, but in liberal mega-states like New York and California. There, Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown run the show, and government payrolls are also being slashed and government pensions pared back.
From Greece to Portugal to Ireland to Italy, an age of austerity has begun. And now that age is about to begin in Barack Obama’s Washington.
Why should this adversely affect black America?
Because not only are African-Americans disproportionately the beneficiaries of federal programs, from the Earned Income Tax Credit to aid for education and student loans, they are even more over-represented in the federal workforce than they are on state payrolls.
Though 10 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force, African-Americans are 18 percent of U.S. government workers. They are 25 percent of the employees at Treasury and Veterans Affairs, 31 percent of the State Department, 37 percent of Department of Education employees and 38 percent of Housing and Urban Development. They are 42 percent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., 55 percent of the employees at the Government Printing Office and 82 percent at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.
When the Obama administration suggested shutting down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants whose losses of $150 billion have had to be made up by taxpayers, The Washington Post warned, in a story headlined, “Winding Down Fannie and Freddie Could Put Minority Careers at Risk,” that 44 percent of Fannie employees and 50 percent of Freddie’s were persons of color.
In Washington, D.C., we have also seen the result of government cuts on African-American leaders who had to approve those cuts.
When Mayor Adrian Fenty stood behind schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who fired hundreds of teachers, most of them African-American, the wards east of the Anacostia cut him dead. In 2010, Fenty was thrown out by many of the black voters who elected him.
Not only are African-Americans over-represented among government employees, these jobs are the backbone of the black middle class. For federal pay and benefits have in recent years far outstripped those of the private sector.
From 2000 to 2010, the number of federal employees earning over $150,000 increased tenfold. That number doubled in the first two years alone of the Obama administration. The average pay of federal civil servants in 2009, after benefits were factored in, was $123,000, twice the average pay and benefits of $61,000 in the private sector.
Indeed, because of the salaries and benefits that District of Columbia and federal employees receive, Washington is first among all metropolitan areas in per-capita income. And the three congressional districts north and west of the city in Maryland and Virginia are among the top 10 in the nation in average income.
The half-century since the Great Society was launched in the mid-1960s have been the salad days of the government sector. No segment of the population has benefited more than black America.
But with the U.S. government running its third deficit of 10 percent of gross domestic product, and Obama talking of cutting $4 trillion from future spending, those days are over. And as black America benefited immensely from the Great Society, so it is likely to hurt most as the cuts come.
Already, black voices are beginning to blame the black president whom fate has chosen to preside over the downsizing.
Obama, says Princeton professor Cornel West, “lacks backbone.” He is a “black mascot of Wall Street and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. … I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Barack Obama.”
Incredibly, the question must be asked.
Is this Democratic administration about to go to war with its base? Is black America souring on Barack Obama?