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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.


When President Obama formally unveiled his fiscal 2014 budget on Wednesday, a lot of the progressive movement focus was on his plan to cut Social Security benefits through a reduced cost-of-living adjustment called the “chained CPI.” But there was another scandalous policy decision reflected in that budget as well, and this one is a sin of omission: There will not be an all-out effort to address the depression-level unemployment conditions among African Americans.

In that is a convergence of misplaced economic priorities and foolhardy politics. The African-American community is the most solid bloc of what Democracy Corps calls the “rising American electorate.” It is the bloc whose unity around Barack Obama propelled him into the White House in 2008 and kept him there in 2012. But among African-American voters there are a significant segment that has complained for years that their votes are taken for granted by the Democratic party, and among no small number of African-American thinkers,  very little has happened in the Obama administration to soften their concerns.

The rejoinder to those who assert that African Americans don’t have much to show for their votes for the Democratic Party continues to be that “the Republican party is worse.” But while the Republican Party remains too tied to America’s Jim Crow past to win significant shares of African American votes, Democrats could still lose in 2014 and beyond when for millions of African-American voters “not much” to show for their loyalty becomes “not enough” to show up at the polls.

An Economic Crisis

Friday’s job report was the continuation of a decades-long story of the nation still living with the echoes of its racist past. Unemployment among African Americans was measured at 13.3 percent. That’s more than one in eight African Americans looking for work but nonetheless out of a job. The white unemployment rate is half that, at 6.7 percent.

The persistence of disproportionate African-American unemployment is a capstone of the “heads-they-win-tails-we-lose” persistence of African Americans getting the worst when the economy declines and the least when the economy grows.

That pattern was repeated during the Great Recession. An essay on the black middle class in the National Urban League’s  “State of Black America 2012″ report contains some of the stark details, concluding that “almost all of the economic gains of the last 30 years have been lost” since late 2007, and worse, “the ladders of opportunity for reaching the black middle class are disappearing.”

In 2010, the median household income for African Americans was 30 percent less than the median income of white households  30 years ago. African-American household income fell more than 2.5 times farther than white household income during the Great Recession, 7.7 percent versus 2.9 percent. Home ownership rates also fell for African Americans at roughly double the rates of whites, essentially wiping out the gains in home ownership since 2000. Today, more than a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line, compared to about 10 percent of white people.

A newly released report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies also underscores the severity of economic conditions among African Americans. That report focused on black unemployment rates in 25 states with large African-American populations starting when the economy was at its peak in 2006. “In 2006, prior to the recession, the unemployment rate in the black community was already at recession levels in every one of the 25 states we studied, from 8.3% in Virginia to 19.2% in Michigan, and in 20 of the 25 states the unemployment rate for African Americans was above 10%,” the report said. “In 2011, more than two years after the economic recovery began, unemployment rates for African Americans across most age, gender and education categories remained significantly higher than their pre-recession rates.”

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