By Lee A. Daniels
Some might think the annual report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage the U.S. Census Bureau released last week had a distinctly repetitive tone to it. Albeit with a few exceptions, the words “not statistically significant” aptly fit the very small increases or decreases of most of the measurements that comprise the year-to-year tally.
But that doesn’t make the document itself insignificant. For the report – a critical report card on the well-being of American society as a whole – underscores long-term economic trends that represent a clear and present danger to the viability of the broader society and to Black Americans in particular.
Make no mistake: the report did contain some good news. One was that, thanks to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), those Americans without health insurance declined by 8 percent, or 3.8 million, in the first three months of this year to 41 million people. But overwhelmingly the report’s good news served as a reminder of the magnitude of larger problems.
For example, the overall poverty rate declined from 15.0 percent to 14.5 percent – its first decline since 2006. However, that decline was almost certainly due to population growth since the actual number of Americans living in poverty –45.3 million – remains at a record level. The report also charted a welcome decline in the child poverty rate. But children still make up a third of those Americans living at or below the poverty line. Further, the report found that more Americans shifted from part-time to full-time work—but wages barely kept pace with inflation, so that didn’t produce any significant broad-scale gains in income. Median household income last year was $51,940 – not statistically different from 2012.
That last finding offers a clue to this report’s major takeaway, which was also highlighted by a Federal Reserve Board study of early September: income and wealth inequality is continuing to increase. Which means that racial income and wealth inequality is continuing to increase.
Of course, the lack of overall progress in so many of the report’s measures is bad news for Black Americans, for the old truism still applies: If White America has a cold—as it does in part because of because of the slow pace of the recovery—Black America has pneumonia.
That’s what the data in the Census Bureau report and a report the Federal Reserve Board released earlier this month show. For example, while the overall poverty rate is 14.5 percent, and 9.6 percent for Whites, 10.5 percent for Asian Americans, and 23.5 percent for Hispanic Americans, Blacks’ poverty rate is 27.2 percent. While the overall median household income was $51,939, the comparable figure for Blacks was $34,598.
That that’s the way it is today (and the way it’s always been) is embodied in one statistic: the Black unemployment rate, now at 11.4 percent, more than twice the 5.3-percent rate for Whites. Many today still sing the same tawdry refrain that Blacks’ disproportionate unemployment rate is a product of poor Blacks’ unwillingness to “start at the bottom” and take available low-wage jobs. They forget, or ignore, the extraordinary development that occurred in 1999, at the end of the 1990s’ nearly decade-long economic boom, when the Black unemployment rate fell to a record low of 7.6 percent.
It did so, as a national study of more than 300 metropolitan areas found, because young poor and poorly-educated Black males, flocked to take the bottom-rung, low-wage jobs that the long period of prosperity had finally opened up to them. The study found that this group, historically the most maligned demographic group in American society, was working in greater numbers and earning bigger paychecks than ever before, and it also found that the crime rates in those areas had decreased.
That proved – again – that this cohort of Black Americans needed no tendentious lectures about the value of work. When jobs became available to them, they took them.
I’ve no doubt that same sort of determination exists today among all strata of Black Americans. One clue lies in the insight of Valerie Wilson, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, that some percentage of the Black unemployment rate stems from what she calls “the resilience factor.” In other words, because only the jobless who continue to look for work are counted as unemployed, the fact that “relative to whites, a higher share of jobless blacks have continued to seek work …[means that] the resilience of African American labor force participation is actually contributing to the growing black-white unemployment rate gap.”
The key word there is “resilience.” Black Americans will need every ounce of it they can muster to overcome the economic danger they face now.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.