They teach our children, drive our buses, clean our streets and deliver our mail. They staff the government and make it run. Their public-sector jobs are at the heart of the middle class, particularly for African-Americans and Latinos. And they are in steep decline.
One of five African-American adults works in government employment. This is a higher percentage than either white Americans or Latinos. It isn’t surprising. Freed of segregation, African-Americans came into our cities just as manufacturing jobs — the traditional pathway to the middle class — were headed abroad. Government employment offered secure jobs, decent pay and benefits, a chance to buy a home and lift your family.
Women also flocked to public service jobs, which offered greater professional and managerial opportunities.
But in 2008 when the economy collapsed, state budgets were savaged. Tax revenues plummeted; spending needs soared. Deep cutbacks in regular programs followed. No one will be surprised to learn that African Americans lost jobs at a higher rate than whites, often because of seniority.
Now, in the sixth year of the recovery, the economy has inched back, unemployment is down. But employment in the public sector hasn’t bounced back. The new jobs being created pay less and offer less security than the jobs that were lost. And this has devastating effects on the African-American middle class, the very people who have worked hard, played by the rules, and sought to get ahead.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that since 2007, there are 1.8 million missing jobs in the public sector. Moreover, across the country, conservative Republican governors have assaulted unions and sought to curb collective bargaining, erase teacher tenure, and dramatically cut pensions and other benefits.
The loss of jobs and cutback on wages exacerbated the housing collapse. We’ve learned that banks and other predators targeted black neighborhoods like Prince Georges County in Maryland. They marketed shoddy mortgages, leaving those with good credit paying higher rates than they could have and those with no credit betting it all on the assumption that housing prices would never fall.
Many report on the decline of the middle class, which has fallen backward over the last decade in both median income and wealth. More than 8 of 10 Americans, according to a Pew Poll, now report that it is harder to maintain their standard of living than it was 10 years ago.
And African-Americans and Latinos got hit the hardest. The race gap has widened, not narrowed, in this century. The New York Times reports that 50 percent of African-Americans now are low-income households, along with 43 percent of Latinos — a category that has been growing since 2000.
In Illinois, the nonprofit Corporation for Enterprise Development reports that more than one in three households suffers a “persistent state of financial insecurity.” Again, African-Americans, Latinos and single women with children fare worse.
Numbers like this numb. We know the reality. But we seem in denial. When Baltimore blows up, the spotlight is put on the police and their practices, as it should be. But police forces across the country are ordered to keep order in communities racked with unemployment, homelessness, drugs, guns, collapsing schools, impoverished families and crushed hopes. The best-trained, more empathetic police officers in the country would have a hard time fulfilling that mission.
This country cannot stay in denial. We have to have a bold plan to rebuild high poverty neighborhoods from Chicago’s South Side to Appalachia’s valleys. Across the country we have work to do — from rebuilding 100-year-old water systems to creating the rapid transit that will connect people to jobs to moving to clean energy — and we have an entire generation of young people desperate for work. We have corporations stashing trillions abroad to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Billionaire hedge fund operators pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries. We need rebuild America and put people to work. The cost of losing another generation to despair will be far greater than the cost of investing in them on the front side of life.