Last Week in Poverty: The Unfinished March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Continued from previous page
Why are these numbers so significant?
“Now as a half century ago—segregated schools are unequal schools,” writes Austin. A 10 percent increase in a school’s nonwhite students is associated with a $75 decrease in per student spending. Furthermore, “the average school with 90 percent or more non-white students has $443,000 less to spend on students during the school year.” (Italics added.)
With this kind of stark difference in educational opportunities and resources, it’s hardly a surprise that—absent a full employment program that the March speakers called for—we have seen the black unemployment rate remain two to two and a half times higher than the white unemployment rate from 1963 to 2012.
“Indeed, black America is nearly always facing an employment situation that would be labeled a particularly severe recession if it characterized the entire labor force,” notes Austin.
When the economy was booming in 2000, and the white unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, the black unemployment rate was still a recession-like 7.6 percent. In the aftermath of the recent Great Recession, when white unemployment peaked at 8 percent, black unemployment stood at a Depression-like 15.9 percent. (The average national unemployment rate from 1929 to 1939 was 13.1 percent.)
“If we can have full employment and full production for the negative ends of war then why can’t we have a job for every American in the pursuit of peace?” asked Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers of America, speaking at the March in 1963.
Austin asserts that unless we commit to a full employment policy that brings down the minority unemployment rates, “it will be impossible for blacks to have low poverty rates.” Indeed in 2011, the back poverty rate was 27.6 percent—nearly three times the white poverty rate of 9.8 percent that year, according to the most recent US Census Bureau figures.
For African-Americans who do find work, a disproportionate number are paid low wages. In 2006, 36 percent didn’t earn hourly wages sufficient to lift a family of four out of poverty (above approximately $23,000 annually); the same holds true for more than 43 percent of Hispanics, and nearly 25 percent of whites. In 2011, a worker needed to earn $11.06 an hour to lift a family of four out of poverty.
“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here—for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all,” said John Lewis in 1963, then the national chairman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and now a US Congressman.
The marchers wanted the minimum wage to be lifted from $1.15 to $2 an hour—the equivalent of more than $13 an hour today. But it now stands at $7.25, and its inflation-adjusted value is about $2 less than it was in 1968. (The tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 an hour since 1991.) If it had kept pace with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.59 today—$18.72 if it had kept pace with productivity gains. But Congress has raised the minimum wage just three times in the past thirty years.
“Because too many Americans’ expectations about what the US economy can deliver to them have been battered in recent decades, many would see this [$13] minimum-wage demand as unrealistically high,” writes Austin. “But [it] is still lower than what the minimum wage would be if it had merely risen in step with gains in economy-wide productivity—a reasonable benchmark for wage increases.”
In these times, when so many dismiss institutional discrimination against people of color by simply pointing to President Obama and saying, “End of discussion,” Austin has done a real service with his examination of the data that reveals the unfinished—and widely forgotten—business of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.