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Black America Is Living Through a Great Economic Depression -- What's Obama Going to Do About It?

The big economic problems remain for a huge part of our nation still living with the echoes of its racist past.

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In fact, the jobless rate for African Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 in these states was 29.5 percent in 2011, two years after the recession had supposedly ended.

“If the national unemployment rate was anywhere near these percentages, we’d be in crisis emergency mode,” said Ralph B. Everett, president of the Joint Center, during a discussion of the report last week.

Instead, the “crisis” that has the attention of the Washington political class is the federal debt, and even the Obama administration has now caught some of the fever. This fixation dictates that the federal government not be able to devote the resources necessary to address this crisis. While members of  the “Fix the Debt” crowd – overwhelmingly white and disengaged from the day-to-day struggles of African-American communities – pleads concern about the debt that will be handed down to their children, no one speaks of the consequences that the continuing economic depression experienced by millions of African-American households will have on the next generation.

There is no question what majorities of African-American voters consider to be the real threat to their long-term economic interests – it is not the federal deficit, but the inaction in Washington driven by the conservative fixation on the deficit. In a Democracy Corps focus group on  the economic priorities of the “rising America electorate,” almost three out of four African Americans agreed with a statement that said that while reducing the deficit is important, we must “invest in education, protect retirement security, and reduce health care costs in a balanced way” in order to “invest in growth that creates good middle class jobs.” Fewer than one in five agreed with the argument used by congressional Republicans that “our biggest problem is that we spend too much” and that “we must cut spending, including Medicare and Social Security” while protecting the wealthy from tax increases.

The statement that won overwhelming African-American support in the Democracy Corps survey happens to parallel the three issues that were listed as top priorities of African Americans surveyed in the group: retirement benefits, affordable education and affordable health care. It is a list largely borne out of the day-to-day experiences of African-American households. Of those who were surveyed, 48 percent had cut back on purchases at the grocery store, 25 percent had seen their wages or benefits at work reduced, 22 percent had lost a job, 32 percent had moved in with family or had family move in with them to save money, 13 percent had fallen behind in their mortgage and 11 had been affected by cuts to unemployment benefits.

The Agenda We Need

The Democracy Corps survey also picked up something that should be very worrying to the Democratic Party. In a generic “who would you vote for if the election were held today” matchup, African-American support for Democrats fell from 90 percent at the beginning of the year to 85 percent in March. And only 71 percent of African Americans surveyed said they were “almost certain to vote” in the 2014 elections after having voted in 2012, compared to 78 percent of white voters. Yes, it is a relatively small sample in one poll and campaigning for the first of the midterm elections is still at least eight months away.

But it pays to remember 2010, when African Americans were  only 10 percent of the electorate, down from 13 percent in 2008.  According to the Joint Center for Political Studies, 16 of the 60 seats Democrats lost in the House that year were in districts in which at least 10 percent of the electorate was African American.

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