Economy & Budget

Black families’ middle-class crisis

Congressional Democrats are looking to renew and refine their support for the middle class through increased wage schemes and tax policies. But a spate of current research paints a disconcerting picture of America’s shrinking middle-income households and reveals particular struggles for black Americans, for whom the accumulation and intergenerational transfer of wealth are increasingly nonexistent. Democrats and progressive leaders looking to 2016 should shy away from all-or-nothing ideological debates and address the concerns of important constituencies, mindful of their intricacies and nuances.

{mosads}A recent New York Times article asserts that the increasing number of households moving into upper-income brackets veiled substantial middle-class contraction over the last 50 years. While more families fall into the lower income quintile, the fastest-growing group of middle class households are those 65 and older receiving Medicaid and Social Security benefits “originally set up as safety nets to protect seniors from falling into poverty after retirement … [which] have provided a substantial cushion for them against hard times.”

Another report from the Brookings Institution digs even deeper, highlighting the effects for black families, finding that half of all black Americans born into poverty will stay there. Most black children are downwardly mobile; that is, even if their parents are middle class, they will likely drop out of that income bracket. The report concludes that “seven out of [10] black Americans born into the middle quintile fall into one of the two quintiles below as adults. Even black Americans who make it to the middle class are likely to see their kids fall down the ladder.”

Furthermore, the black-white wealth gap continues to widen. From 2007 to 2013, black median wealth halved, and is over 10 times less that of white households. The disparity may be exacerbated by the Great Recession’s disproportionate impact on black household wealth due to reduction in home ownership and home value. Traditional paths to the middle class for black workers have tapered. Development-minded mayors and governors are shrinking public-sector payrolls and while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that black workers in 2014 had the highest rate of union membership, organized labor has declined overall.

This conversation is not new. The death of former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.) offered nostalgia for his much-lauded speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention that renewed a Democratic progressive vision, but the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s remarks struck a far more compelling chord, connecting economic empowerment to political power for the poor and communities of color — the politically disenfranchised who had been isolated from the Democratic mainstream.

Jackson’s campaign energized these voters in 1984 and 1988, much the way President Obama did 30 years later. And he built upon his campaigns by maneuvering at the national level to increase black political representation at every level of government and create stronger ties between corporations and communities of color.

Black Enterprise magazine, an important publication focused on the issue of black economic power, referred to the familiar “two-cities” metaphor just after the 1984 elections and looked to Jackson, among others, to close that gap. Current discussions seem to lack a multifaceted approach that finds a role for responsible corporate engagement; instead, they are dominated by an ideological tug-of-war aligned more with treating constituencies as monolithic blocks than complex and multidimensional communities.

A local example sheds some light. Heralded as the progressive answer to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) technocratic management of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has flown across the United States and to the United Kingdom to promote his brand of politics. But transitioning his tenuous coalition from campaigning to governing had been decidedly unstable and clumsy.

Before becoming mayor, de Blasio spent most of his career as an elected official antagonizing government institutions and chiding Bloomberg for his corporate-styled, meritocratic management of city agencies.

Within the first few weeks in office, de Blasio plunged himself into a bitter battle with school choice advocates, exposing a huge miscalculation of the scope and strength of their political and media relationships. A political elbow by an unambiguously moderate Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), which fueled ongoing frustration among progressives and forced City Hall to rethink its overall policy and intergovernmental strategies, spurred the mayor’s capitulation.

But the most compelling moment in that entire episode was the sight of thousands of black and Latino parents for whom school choice was paramount rallying at the State Capitol — a group that many either assumed did not really exist or who were somehow brainwashed or misinformed by the Wall Street leaders that fund schools. These parents and generations before them have long viewed education as a means out of poverty — a particular poignant fact given that for the first time, 51 percent of all public school students are now living in poverty.

The new two cities approach seems acutely vulnerable to scrutiny because of the fallacy of an underlying assumption: progressive leaders sit atop a fence uniting the two. They are, in fact, firmly encamped in one ideology, trying to convince others to join them, which has the effect of ignoring within-group differentiation of attitudes toward certain public policy initiatives — education policy being just one example. More broadly, the approach can often come across rather patronizing in its demand for fidelity.

But American households and indeed, the black families who have been stalwarts of Democratic politics, need both immediate support and long-term vision that improves opportunities for inherited intellectual capital and wealth. As Columbia University Professor Ester Fuchs has recently written, “a continued rhetorical obsession will start to appear disingenuous.” Further discussions around progressive politics should embrace multiple paths toward economic and political empowerment that is exhaustive of options rather than confined to a select few that adheres to a narrowly drawn political road map.

Smikle is a political analyst and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies.

Tags Bill de Blasio Black families income inequality Jesse Jackson Mario Cuomo middle class Mike Bloomberg New York City

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