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Op-Ed: Is There Really a Black Middle Class

Page history last edited by Faye Anderson 13 years, 9 months ago

Is There Really a Black Middle Class?


By William Reed


"What is happening now is the American dream in reverse."

– President Barack Obama


President Obama’s Task Force on the Middle Class says "America's middle class is hurting."  Vice President Joe Biden states the obvious, that recession job losses, mortgage defaults and the stock market’s tumbles threaten Americans' ability to make ends meet: "It is our charge to get the middle class - the backbone of this country - up and running again."


Unbridled capital-and-consumerism has brought many members of America’s middle class to their knees.  The current economic crisis has waged a particularly severe attack on Blacks in the middle class.  Economics say “2008 was not a good year” for African Americans and “it looks like things will get worse.”  Defaults on loans and foreclosures devastating the economy and Wall Street represent the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history.  Vice President Biden defines middle class Americans as people who would find it difficult to miss more than two paychecks.  Among African Americans the difference between being middle class and poor is one paycheck.


The median US income is about $51,000 a year.  Most middle class Americans are homeowners. They have mortgages, at least some college education and a professional or managerial job that earns them somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year.  But America’s middle class families have financed the world’s highest consumption rate through reduced savings and increased debt.  Most drive expensive vehicles, two-thirds have high-speed Internet, and 40 percent own flat-screen TVs.  Black, or white, they have several credit cards and loads of luxury goods.  Twenty-one percent of middle class Americans is spent to the limit.  Personal bankruptcies rose by a third last year and mortgage defaults moved beyond subprime borrowers to those with previously high credit scores.


Half of Black Americans are middle class.  The Black middle class in America (1865- ) is made up of families who own their own homes and those who have a university degree or own a small business.  There has been a black middle class since slaves were freed.  It was small until the 1960s, but after that it started to grow and by the 1980s had come into its own.


Growth in the economy, public policy, skills development, and the civil rights movement all contributed to a larger black middle class.  The civil rights movement removed barriers to higher education and as opportunities expanded, blacks began to take advantage of new possibilities.  Today, 86 percent of blacks are high school graduates and 13 percent from college.  Blacks hold a wide range of jobs, but have been particularly successful securing public sector middle-income employment.  Blacks are twice as likely as whites to work for city, state, or federal government.  Those public sector jobs are stable but do not pay as much as the private sector.  Inside Corporate America, Black professionals have been relegated more to soft positions in personnel and public relations than in traditional line authority jobs in planning and production that prepared people to move up the corporate ladder.  Public policy, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, also helped it expand.


There is no question it exists.  The Black middle class is larger than it’s ever been, and is the race’s fastest growing and largest segment.  The Black middle class has quadrupled since 1965.  Ten percent of Black Americans have incomes exceeding $75,000.  A married Black couple with university educations makes almost as much money as their white counterparts.  But in comparison, they’ve saved little money and their houses aren’t worth as much.


Will the Middle Class Task Force do much to help African Americans, most of whose assets are in their homes and vehicles?  The Black middle class will have to stand in line with America’s middle class mass for Stimulus Package benefits.  Issues of household wealth such as property ownership, investments and savings show that the division in wealth between middle class blacks and whites will continue.  As personal wealth and assets decline across America, will Black middle class families whose typical financial worth is one-tenth that of whites’ $81,000 disappear?


William Reed is President and Chief Executive Officer of Black Press International.


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