The precariat is presented as a new social class in America in the first installment in my series. The article is generic, not specific to any particular ethnic group in America. Given America’s history, it is fair to say that the precariat – in its current form and scope – is a new phenomenon to white America:
“Precariat. Derived from the word “precarious,” the term describes me as a writer. It describes my husband, an IT professional and technical writer. It describes most of my friends who are IT professionals in a range of fields. It does not describe those who are developers who live in the Bay Area, and didn’t lose their job to the Great Recession. Those who did lose their jobs and were in their 40’s are now amongst the struggling precariat strata and includes engineers and non-technical professionals. That describes only a portion of what constitutes the Precariat. What we all have in common is the precarious economic position we all find ourselves in. Here is a general definition:
Precariat: a class of people who live just above the poverty line when, according to their professional experience or training, they should be well above it, somewhere along the spectrum we know as the middle class.”
To Black America, even though the word may be unfamiliar, the concept behind the precariat is an old and familiar one. African Americans are this nation’s original precariat, certainly through Emancipation, Reconstruction, and all the way through the Civil Rights movements of the 60’s, 70’s to today’s Black Lives Matter. The history of the Black precariat is hundreds of years old. Blacks have always suffered more when the nation falters, and prosper less when it thrives. Race, gender, and class have always been woven into the cloth of America’s racism.
|Note to readers:
The unemployment rates in the graphs below use the official unemployment rates (U3). Senator Bernie Sanders, whenever he quotes unemployment rates uses the U6 figures also published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Generally, that figure, includes segments of the population not included in the official rates such as those who have given up or run out of unemployment benefits and are no longer tracked. Real unemployment is roughly double that of the official rate and is a perfectly valid measure of unemployment. See my articles about how the unemployed are counted, variances between economic writers on how those numbers are reported, and economists’ theories on what constitutes full employment, this economic cycle, for further information.
What’s new about the present-day precariat is not that Blacks constitute a sizable relative portion of it, but that so many whites have joined their ranks since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, and have remained in this new permanent class ever since. If white middle and aged older professionals were unable to find new employment in the years since 2008, neither did their Black counterparts. If their children graduated from college and into a job market that has neither jobs nor salaries that used to befit the start of a new career, it is even more so for new Black graduates who are not lucky enough to land a job that helps certain employers meet their requirements for Affirmative Action.
In,The Fed, full employment, African-Americans, and an event that brings it all together, economist Jared Bernstein writes:
“Over the long, strong recovery of the 1990s, black unemployment fell 4.5 points compared to 2.1 points for whites (and 2.5 points overall). Over the 1980s recovery, black unemployment—which was about 20% at the end of the deep early 1980s recession—fell 8.5 points compared to 4.7 for whites.
Those comparatively big declines show the disproportionate benefits that blacks reap from lower unemployment and, conditional on the Fed’s ability to lower unemployment, they belie the NYT headline. I could make similar claims based on wages and incomes, but I’m bound by secrecy for now (more on that in a moment).
However, more recently, that relationship isn’t generating such impressive results. Over this recovery, black and white unemployment have declined by similar amounts (4.5 points for blacks; 3.8 for whites). And, as Appelbaum points out, real median wages have fallen twice as much for blacks as for whites.”
Aside from the fact that Black unemployment is always higher because it is never addressed specifically at all times, and especially as part of an economic recovery package, one must consider that a very big consequence of the recession and the forced austerity from 2010 on, is the shrinking of the sector that has traditionally employed the largest number of African Americans: the public sector, whether it is in state or federal government, or in school systems, for example. The effect of the shrinking of the public sector continues to be felt as it has been the single largest source of jobs for African Americans.
Overall, across ethnicities, the middle class had been shrinking for decades before this latest recession hit. Many, like our family, had been affected by the tech bubble of the early 2000’s and were just getting out from under as 2008 happened. If a much larger segment, in the tens of millions, of the middle class was displaced in 2008 and 2009, the Black middle class was decimated not only in terms of jobs, but whatever wealth it had. I wrote this about Prince George’s County, Maryland in my essay on inequality:
“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.””
Indeed, as reported in the Washington Post, poor whites, as poor as they may be, still have white privilege working in their favor:
“Meanwhile, white families with an annual income of just $13,000 on average live in neighborhoods where the median income is $45,000—slightly higher than the precincts occupied by middle-class blacks and just below that of middle-class Hispanics. The same dynamic holds for households that making $100,000 annually.
“It’s relatively well known that black families on average live in poorer neighborhoods, but a lot of people presume that’s simply because black families are poorer,” said Sean Reardon, one of the study’s authors. “But if that were all there was to it, you would find poor whites living in the same kinds of neighborhoods as poor blacks.”
The disparities matter when it comes to raising children and building wealth, researchers emphasized. Other studies have found that growing up in very poor neighborhoods exposes children to bad influences and puts them at greater risk of not going to college, earning less in their careers, and being single parents.
“When you look at the evidence of how important neighborhoods are, you really worry about the long-term consequences of these patterns of racial and economic segregation,” Reardon said.”
Today, we keep reading about “white anger,” but one only needs to spend a little time in social media to see that while Black anger isn’t manifesting itself in exactly the same ways as white anger, it is anger nonetheless, especially among millennials and GenXers, while their elders, set in their ways, are far less demonstrative of whatever feelings they may have. One can see the generational split in the statistics in the South Carolina primary. Hillary Clinton got the lion-share of the older, churchgoing Black vote, while Sanders got young voters, age 29 and under. That split is the same one we see among whites. If the family is liberal, then the grandparents are more likely to be neoliberal, with the generations following theirs identifying as varying degrees of progressive.
Younger Black voters, as their white counterparts, are increasingly finding Senator Sanders’ universalist platform appealing. I suspect that the reason is to be found in these charts from The Brookings Institution, in a report on Black Wealth, prepared by the Huffington Post:
One cannot write about Black unemployment and not cover Black women. Black women, more so than their counterparts in any other group, tend to be the backbone of the family, heading a predominant number of households as the sole wage-earner. High unemployment rates and a safety net that is inadequate and shrinking, to put it politely, affects Black women far more than any other similar cohort. In her Huffington Post article, Avis Jones-DeWeever describes the effect of the Great Recession on Black women:
“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.”
In a February 27th Washington Post article about present-day consequences of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Act, Max Ehrenfreund writes:
“President Clinton’s law required welfare recipients to participate in various work-related programs, such as vocational training, community service, and employment searches, in order to get financial help. States were free to determine the specific requirements, and they had broad authority over how the money dedicated to public assistance would be spent.
The reforms had broad public support, but the new system had cracks, and some people fell through them. Those who couldn’t work for whatever reason were ineligible for any kind of assistance.
As a result, a certain kind of grave poverty has reappeared in the United States. Sanders said that the number of people living in extreme poverty has doubled under President Clinton’s reforms. If anything, that was an understatement. Edin and Shaefer’s research shows that the number of people living on $2 a day or less in cash has increased more than twofold, to 1.6 million households.
“It’s a disgrace,” Edin said.
Getting an accurate estimate of the cash available to households that have so little is difficult, but the federal Survey of Income and Program Participation suggests that their numbers have steadily increased.”
It is a fact that those most adversely affected by the 1996 Welfare Act are Black women and their children. It is a fact that voters are divided between the two Democratic candidates along generational and class lines. I will close with the concluding paragraph on my essay outlining the differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
We find ourselves, again, at a crossroads, with leaders who were old enough to, had it been their ideological and moral choice, participate in the previous civil rights movement. Just as in the first civil rights movement, we find ourselves, again, at a juncture in which there is progress amid polarization the likes we’ve not seen in a very long time, with a renewed backlash both from a shrinking slice of America’s population, and the police establishment. While those participating in the backlash have outlets through which to organize their hate-filled efforts, those who are not have no organized grassroots outlet by which they can join the new civil rights struggle. There is a successful model of cross-racial grassroots cooperation and activism in the Moral Monday movement. I hoped, when learning of its inception, that it would have grown into a nationwide organization by now. In the time remaining until the election, it seems to me, it would behoove all of us to work hard to create an outlet for what Baldwin called the relatively conscious to arrive at a commonly agreed plan of action and, together, turn it into a reality. I close this essay with James Baldwin’s final paragraph of the Fire Next Time:
“And here we are at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbably water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create, the consciousness of the others– do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
In whose heart do you see Noah’s rainbow?
Additional reading resources:
How Poor Single Moms Survive
Welfare reform has driven many low-income parents to depend more heavily on family and friends for food, childcare, and cash.
“But while the numbers are growing, the amount of help available to single mothers is not. Ever since the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Law (generally referred to as welfare reform) placed time limits and work requirements on benefits in an effort to get welfare recipients back into the workforce, single-parent families have had a harder time receiving government benefits. Some states have made it more difficult for low-income single-parent families to get other types of assistance too, such as imposing work requirementsand other barriers for food stamps. According to a recent New York Times column, between 1983 and 2004, government benefits dropped by more than a third for the lowest-income single-parent families.
So how do they manage? How do single moms with few resources and little income survive?
“They trade, they bargain, they strategize, they give each other daycare help, they share housing and food—women learn to strategize their way through all of these resources,” Suzanne Morrissey, a professor at Whitman College who has studied these families, told me.
Research suggests that while two-parent families may be isolated islands of efficiency, single parents—even poor ones—rely on an ever-expanding social network to get by. That social network has become even more important in the wake of welfare reform, when women who couldn’t find work could no longer count on cash assistance, and had to depend on their families and friends.”
Read the rest of this article on The Atlantic
“Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power. Originally articulated on behalf of black women, the term brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them. Intersectional erasures are not exclusive to black women. People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse — all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more. Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.”
In the United States, we often talk about poverty as a line: You are above it or below it; you escape it or can’t get out of it. Every year, the government defines that line with a number. Right now, if you’re in a family of four, you’re considered poor if you get by on less than $16.60 per day.
What we tend to ignore, though — and almost never bother to quantify — is the vast spectrum of poverty itself. And that’s why a new book, “$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, is so eye-opening. It exposes in devastating detail the lives of millions of Americans who aren’t just in poverty, but extreme poverty, the kind you’d normally associate with the developing world. Edin and Shaefer crunched census data and other numbers and calculated that 1.5 million American households are surviving on no more than $2 per day, per person. They also found that the number of households in such straits had doubled in the previous decade and a half.
For the poor in the Deep South’s cities, simply applying for a job exposes the barriers of a particularly pervasive and isolating form of poverty
e set off on the latest day of job hunting wearing tiny star-shaped earrings that belonged to her 18-month-old daughter and frayed $6 shoes from Walmart that were the more comfortable of her two pairs. In her backpack she had stashed a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch, hand sanitizer for the bus and pocket change for printing résumés at the public library. She carried a spiral notebook with a handwritten list of job openings that she’d titled her “Plan of Action for the Week.”
It had been 20 months since Lauren Scott lost her apartment and six months since she lost her car and 10 weeks since she washed up at a homeless shelter in this suburb south of Atlanta with no money and no job. Her daughter, Za’Niyah, had already lived in seven places, and Scott feared that her child would soon grow old enough to permanently remember the chaos. So shortly after sunrise, she packed Za’Niyah into a day-care bus that picked up the shelter’s children, walked to the closest bus station and used her phone to find directions to the first of the companies on her list, an industrial site that would have been 27 minutes away by car.
She squinted, with a light sigh, at the public transit curlicue she was about to make through Atlanta:
Sixty-nine stops on a bus;
a nine-minute train ride;
an additional 49 stops on a bus;