I came across an excellent mash-up of segments from Martin Luther King’s speeches on poverty and the end of an interview of James Baldwin in PBS’ “The Negro and The American Promise.” These two men expressed, in ten minutes and fifty three seconds, far more than Thomas Piketty did in a seven hundred-page book. What they said is as revolutionary today as it was then. What they said applies not only to the “American Negro,” but to what we now call the 99%. Martin Luther King realized it. He despaired about it and set out to redress it in his poverty initiative. He died because of it.
Fixing America’s poverty – truly fixing it – by joining her Blacks and poor whites together was perceived as far more of a threat than the fight for civil rights could ever be, for it would neutralize America’s true centers of power. That perception endures to the present day, as evidenced by the GOP’s tactic of fanning the flames of racial division with a renewed vengeance since the election of President Barack Obama, not to mention its obstruction of Congress, and repeated attempts to dismantle America’s social contract.
The Negro and the American Promise was first broadcast in the spring of 1963, before the March on Washington. 1963 was a year full of racial tensions. The economy, compared to ours today, was also on a path to recovery, though with steadier and faster growth and a still growing middle class.
Why then are the words of MLK and Jimmy Baldwin so resonant today, and on so many subjects? What about today is the same as it was back then? What has deteriorated?
James Baldwin wasn’t only an author and activist. He was also a documentarian. He filmed a documentary in Oakland, California in 1963, entitled Take This Hammer.
In the years since 1963, the overall standard of life has improved for many, across the classes. Yet, in the years since the start of the Great Recession life has worsened for a great many, to the point where that worsening should be called a major setback. The Washington Post, in an investigative report entitled “A Shattered Foundation,” chronicled the disintegration of Prince George’s County, Maryland, one of the wealthiest African American middle class counties in America since the Great Recession.
“But today, the nation’s highest-income majority-black county stands out for a different reason — its residents have lost far more wealth than families in neighboring, majority-white suburbs. And while every one of these surrounding counties is enjoying a strong rebound in housing prices and their economies, Prince George’s is lagging far behind, and local economists say a full recovery appears unlikely anytime soon.”
What are the commonalities of our collective American condition today, to the separate but supposedly equal conditions of the sixties and the Jim Crow era?
To pick up on the Prince George’s County example above, the shrinking of America’s middle class has been ongoing since the Reagan years. The Great Recession was a coup de grace in that it heightened the problem to the point where it is now visible to the naked eye. Everyone lost something, with many losing everything due to the housing and jobs crises brought on by the near-collapse of the financial sector. Many, no matter the ethnicity, have yet to recover and may never do so. Workers near middle age and in their fifties lost the most, as many are unlikely to resume careers and have become a part of what Paul Krugman calls a “lost generation.” Be that as it may, if Blacks traditionally suffer far higher rates of unemployment at all times, the Great Recession has been nothing short of catastrophic for them. This time around, those who had climbed into the middle class suddenly lost their status and whereas their white neighbors have recovered at least to some degree, they have not.
“As was detailed in the recently released report, “The State of Black Women in America, 2015”, Black women have uniquely suffered throughout the entire recovery period. In fact, in the initial years of the economy’s bounce back, Black women were routinely pushed out of jobs as others made their way back into the nation’s economy. The tendency was so great, that more Black women lost jobs in the first two years of the recovery, than was the case during the entire Great Recession itself.”
She further explains:
“Black women have historically, and continue to be the most likely women in America to work outside the home. The real problem is the kind of jobs that are and are not being created as part of the nation’s recovery. Yes, over the last five years, we’ve seen more than 12 million jobs created throughout the nation. The problem is, nearly all of these jobs have been concentrated in the private sector. Women and people of color, but especially Black women have historically been concentrated in the public sector labor force.”
When Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2010, one of the first things they were able to accomplish, through obstruction, is the end of the fiscal stimulus to the states. As money stopped coming in, states and the federal government shed employees. A disproportionately large number were Black. That same act of obstruction was the cause of mass layoffs of teachers, of all races, many of whom still haven’t been re-hired.
Let’s look at unemployment. According to Pew Research Center, during the worst of times, say, during a recession, white unemployment typically rises to about 5% or a little more. During the worst of the Great Recession, it rose to over 8%. Black unemployment, during a recession, is typically double that of white unemployment, or about 11%. During the Great Recession, Black unemployment rose to 19%. International Business Times reports on unemployment for February 2015:
“In February, the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 10.4 percent, while the comparable rates for whites, Hispanics and Asians were 4.7 percent, 6.6 percent and 4.0 percent, in that order, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Friday. The national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent last month. Last year, 23.7 percent of those who are black and unemployed had attended some college, 15.4 percent had bachelor’s degrees and 4.5 percent had advanced degrees.”
On appearance, this compares almost exactly to the conditions in 1963, though there are significant differences. The first, is the number of unemployed who gave up looking for work, those whose long-term unemployment benefits ran out in 2013, and those who are underemployed. None of them are counted in the unemployment data. There is a seldom mentioned index. The U6, adds the unemployed, those who’ve given up, and those who are only partially-employed but wish to work full-time:
As you can see, the actual US rate of unemployment is 11%, not 5.6% as is most commonly quoted. That means real unemployment for African Americans is more than likely double that. What’s more, the Great Recession caused a great loss of wealth. While the hardest hit were African Americans, everyone suffered real losses in wealth that have yet to be recouped.
While Black unemployment is finally starting to recede, it is doing so with low-wage jobs, according to that a report on Black unemployment by the Center for Popular Democracy. The employment gap between Blacks and whites is still a gulf. The difference, this time, is that both Blacks and white, when they find work, do so at far lower wages than before, with far more part-time jobs than ever before. This is a part of an economic cycle called secular stagnation.
The drag of higher education costs and the ensuing student debt is felt across class and race, with huge amounts of debt being incurred to cover education costs that are now requisite to ensure employment. Whereas, in previous generations, those who went to college were practically assured the ability not only to repay student loans but to go on to buy cars and a home, that assurance no longer exists for millenials. For those lucky enough to find jobs in their new professions, wages are much lower than they were for their parents. Many don’t graduate to full-time work and make do with low-wage service industry jobs. As stated above, among Black unemployed, 23.7% have some college, while 4.5% have advanced degrees. 22 states now suspend the licenses of professionals who are behind on their student loan payments. If you’re an unemployed nurse, for example, your ability to work in your field depends on making student loan payments, regardless of employment status. While there are deferment programs for student loan borrowers, one can only defer or forbear payments so many times. In a normal economic cycle where a downturn is not long-term, this arrangement is sufficient. But in today’s economic environment, the measures in place hinder, rather than help.
Then, there is housing. The trend is for millenials to go back home and for multi-generational living to be a common occurrence. With a shortage of affordable rental housing across the country, millions displaced due to the mortgage defaults in the housing crisis, rents have risen sharply. Young people, starting out, are not able to compete for rents their meager pay can’t cover. As a result, shared living is the choice for millenials who are unable to move back in with their parents. Millenials are not buying homes. In the African-American community, housing is especially difficult to afford and, as we saw in the Prince George’s County example above, the devastation of loss of wealth and income is especially deep. In an editorial, Wealth Erased, the New York Times reported that the median family lost 40% of its wealth between the years 2007 and 2010. The loss to families of color during that same time period was a wipe out.
In the years following the Great Recession, poverty, the topic of Dr. Martin Luther King’s last initiative, has deepened and widened more than at any point since the Great Depression, across the races. The percentage of working poor, people who work at least a portion of the time or full time but still need food assistance, exploded at the start of the Great Recession and remains at an all time high.
According to an MSNBC report from April 2012:
As of 2012, 49 million Americans suffer from food insecurity, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as lack of access to “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Nearly one-third of the afflicted are children. And millions of them don’t even have access to food stamps, according to a new report from the anti-hunger organization Feeding America.
Public schools have become the battlefront of the fight against childhood hunger in America, with many a school district now serving two to three meals a day, even when school is not in session.
Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly
Nationally, most of the people who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are white. According to 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, 40.2 percent of SNAP recipients are white, 25.7 percent are black, 10.3 percent are Hispanic, 2.1 percent are Asian and 1.2 percent are Native American.
Twenty-three million households and 47 million Americans received benefits on an average month in 2013; enrollment declined slightly to 22 million households and 46 million individuals in 2014. Three-quarters of those households included a child, an elderly person or someone with a disability. The average monthly benefit per household was $274 in 2013 and $256 last year.
In recent years Republicans have lamented that a growing share of recipients are able-bodied adults without children — a group that made up 10.2 percent of beneficiaries in 2011, up from 6.6 percent before the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 1 million people will be kicked off the rolls by next year as states reimpose time limits on childless, non-disabled adults.)
Nearly one-third of food stamp beneficiaries lived in a household where at least one member had some earned income in 2013. Different states have different eligibility rules for the program, but federal law puts the upper income limit at 200 percent of the poverty line, currently $20,090 for a family of three. Many SNAP recipients qualify based on their participation in another means-tested program, such as Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Curated from Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly
On the healthcare front, President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, brought millions access to health insurance and, thanks to Republican obstructionism in red states, kept it from millions more. It might be fair to say that those who are being kept from healthcare live in the more desperate places in the country and makes them need it even more, even though healthcare is considered a human right in most other nations.
On the education front, while policy-makers are still talking in terms of reforming standards that continue President George W. Bush’ disastrous No Child Left Behind ideas and the new standard is called Common Core, a decade later, we are finally seeing an open revolt in the trenches. Parents are opting out. Kids are refusing to be tested. But we are still nowhere near the start of a conversation about how to completely redesign, not the standards, but the content of education. The government, with a very short-sighted view, is pushing for STEM (science, technology, English, math). With reading comprehension, critical thinking, and other scores better raised by a solid foundation in the humanities, we are nowhere near the point where there is a clamor for going back to teaching the humanities in a way that does our society justice. Our society is increasingly culture-poor, ignorant of its heritage as a nation. In some states, those where “states’ rights” proponents are in control, there has been a push to cleanse the curriculum of certain eras of America’s past. For example, in Arizona, ethnic studies is banned. In states like Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia, efforts have been successful in limiting the amount of teaching on the portion of America’s history that deals with Slavery. In Virginia, Georgia, and Florida, for example, the ethnicity of students is used as a criterion on which to base educational expectations. In her article entitled “Should Schools Set Different Goals for Students of Different Races,” Emily Richmond writes:
“It would be tough to find a slope that’s potentially more slippery than this one: public schools setting different achievement expectations for students based on their race and ethnicity.
But that’s exactly what’s happening in dozens of states that have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, allowing them to replace the more onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind with more flexible accountability measures.”
Public education, since its inception, has been the one constant equalizing factor in our society. As it has declined, so has our society. We are poorer economically and financially. We know less and fear more. We are more prone to violence, especially race-based violence.
America’s reality, deep and, now abiding, poverty on the scale we see today is precisely what Dr. King set out to prevent in his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.
“The Campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds. After presenting an organized set of demands to Congress and executive agencies, participants set up a 3000-person tent city on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks.”
If, in Dr. King’s estimation, the socio-economic conditions of the late sixties merited the joint grassroots activism of whites and Blacks in America, then that calculation is a million times as true today, based purely on economic issues. But there is even more that we all share: the police state is tightening its grip on the nation, with devastating consequences for young Blacks, male and female. In March 2015 alone, 115 people were killed by police across the nation, more than all the people, combined, in the United Kingdom, since 1933, or the combined police forces of several European nations after the Second World War. Police brutality is at an all-time high, with the majority of victims being male and Black, but a sizable portion white. Acts of police misconduct not resulting in a police killing are also at an all-time high.
All of the issues I’ve outlined above are issues that Dr. King spoke about in his speeches. They are also the very same issues James Baldwin wrote about in his essays, articles and in interviews. Those are also the very issues, though in a much narrower context, that Malcolm X spoke about.
Since the start of the Great Recession, in 2008, several new grassroots organizations have sprouted up to address the consequences of the Great Recession: political, social, and economic. Some of those movements have fizzled out or turned their focus on a more narrow band.
We don’t currently have a leader with the vision and passion to pick up where Martin Luther King was stopped. Yet, of all the things America needs the most, finishing that great endeavor is what it needs the most.
I will be exploring those and theorizing on what the future of political activism might hold, next, in an upcoming article.
– Economic Snapshot | Race and Ethnicity | Economic Policy Institute | 50 years of recessionary-level unemployment in Black America | by Algernon Austin
– James Baldwin, documentary: Take This Hammer