We’ve been trying to solve the problems of the American inner cities for almost fifty years with the ideas, institutions and techniques of twentieth century progressive and liberal thought. While individuals have been helped, the Black middle class has grown, and better policing has brought crime rates down out of the stratosphere, those left in the inner cities are farther away from participating on equal terms in the national economy than ever.
There are those who say the problem is that we just haven’t done enough, that we should spend more money, establish more programs, and work harder to pull down the invisible barriers that still limit Black participation in American life.
It’s impossible to refute this argument completely; nobody knows what would happen if we spent another $100 billion, $1 trillion or more. But there are a couple of things we can say. One is that given the fiscal constraints on every level of government (even if Republicans give some ground on taxes), no significant expansion of spending on inner city problems is coming down the pike. Far more likely is a series of painful cuts as federal, state and city budgets are slashed. If what we are doing fails now at current levels of spending, there is little chance that lower levels of spending with the same methods and programs will achieve more.
We can also say that a critical mass of inner city problems cannot be helped with the methods and tools that the progressive state can bring to bear.
Let’s start with government itself. The rise of public employment in the United States has for more than 150 years been linked to the efforts of urban political machines to provide for their constituents. This is not a Black thing; the Black patronage political machines of our cities today are the direct descendants of the Nativist and Irish political machines of the 1830s and 1840s.
The core idea is that by hiring local residents to work for the government, real social needs could be met and jobs would be created that would form the nucleus for a growing middle class. Waves of Irish, German, Polish, Italian and other immigrants in turn used their voting power to get jobs for their people.
African-Americans, the last major group of migrants into the cities before the recent Hispanic migration, did the same thing — though with a difference. As part of the progressive system of social reforms enacted in many cities in response to the corruption and inefficiency of the old machines, civil service jobs and lifetime tenure were introduced into many branches of municipal government. When the Blacks came along, they could no longer do what past groups had done: fire members of other ethnic groups from patronage jobs and put their own in. By the time Black politicians were in power in urban governments, civil service rules got in the way of traditional ethnic empowerment; much of the fighting over affirmative action represented Black efforts to achieve traditional ethnic goals in a progressive era.
(This by the way is one of the ways that a problem looks racial when Blacks are involved — even though similar problems existed in the past with no Black participation. Unqualified Irish, Italians and others flooded into government jobs in the past and we talked about machine politics. Blacks do exactly the same thing and we talk about race.)
In any case, Blacks are now well represented in government jobs: close to 20 percent of government jobs are filled by Blacks although Blacks constitute only 12 percent of the workforce generally. Although wages, health care and retirement benefits will be under pressure as governments respond to tight budgets, these are still pretty good jobs by most standards. In many places, government workers are mainstays of the Black middle class.
Bureaucratic city government has historically been more than a way of steering tax money into the pockets of people who then vote reliably for the machine that imposes the taxes. It was also a way in which immigrants and their kids were integrated into the middle class. Steady civil service and fire and police department paychecks created credit worthy consumers who could buy houses and cars on credit. White collar work in a municipal office was pretty close to white collar work in an insurance company.
In the peak years of the blue social model (roughly, FDR through Ronald Reagan, or 1933 through 1984), American economic life was bureaucratic. Kids went to schools where they learned to sit at a desk and do what they were told. Those who learned the basics and graduated from high school worked in factories. Those who did better and got a bachelor’s degree worked in offices. Those who did better still and went on to graduate school moved into the professions.
Once employed, people moved gradually up the ranks or the salary scale based on seniority and paper credentials. Get a master’s degree and get a salary bump. Accumulate seniority and get the best assignments. At the end, everybody retires at the mandatory retirement age and collects a defined benefits pension until the final checkout comes.
The whole economy didn’t work this way. There were still holdovers from the old, pre-organized world: sharecroppers, Coney Island carnival barkers, unfranchised Mom and Pop burger joints and so on. There were also entrepreneurs and start ups and sales-oriented companies where the bottom line mattered more than credentials and procedures. But more than before or since, the Age of Blue was a time when the organized and predictable corporate-bureaucratic world dominated American culture and life.
During the Blue Age, life in government was not very different from life outside it. Salaries were a bit lower and the bureaucratic structures were sometimes more rigid, but on the whole post office clerks and insurance company clerks had similar work experiences and their families lived similar lives.
As this social model increasingly broke up in the 1980s, conditions in the private and public sector diverged. Automation reduced the number of clerical positions in the insurance industry, but politics slowed the pace of change in the Post Office. Private sector employment changed its nature, becoming less predictable, less egalitarian (in terms of salary distribution), and companies shifted from defined benefit pensions based on seniority to defined contribution benefits based on how much employees paid in.
Generally, political inertia and public worker unions combined to keep government in the Blue Age even as the rest of the economy moved on. Today, the experiences and the expectations of people in the private sector and people in the public sector are quite different. There are many results, including taxpayer revolts against public sector benefits and pay, but from an urban policy standpoint the key one is this: the government job machine is no longer an escalator to the middle class. In fact, the dependence of the Black middle class on government work is going to be one of the chief threats to the health of the Black middle class as we’ve known it.
The threat takes two forms. Accelerating upheaval in government staffing patterns combined with employment freezes and tight fiscal limits will force many government workers into the uncertain atmosphere their private sector counterparts have breathed these many years. Layoffs, salary rollbacks and massive, job shedding restructurings will become much more common as governments respond to tough fiscal conditions by trying to cut costs and innovate rather than just cutting services.
Government workers enjoyed a holiday from history in the last thirty years as Blue Age working conditions and staffing levels survived in government work; for many, that holiday is coming to an end. The number of government jobs is likely to drop, the link between performance and pay (rather than seniority and pay or paper credentials and pay) will become tighter, and job tenure will become less secure.
In some cases this will come through changes in the way government works as unions accept cutbacks and budgets are slashed; in others it will come through outsourcing and privatization. If anything, this will happen faster in blue cities and states than in red ones. Blue states like New York, California, Illinois and New Jersey face the ugliest budget choices. Ideology may prompt some conservative and Tea Party-style politicians to fight unions and cut government costs; arithmetic (a much stronger force in the end) is forcing those choices on liberals like Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown.
This is one danger for the Black middle class and it’s an urgent and obvious one: the good jobs are going away — and they won’t be quite as good anymore. The second danger is subtler but no less important. In the past, government work served to integrate ethnic minorities and urban populations into society at large. In the current atmosphere of sharpening debate over the role and cost of government, the ties of so much of the Black middle class to government employment may make it harder, not easier, for Blacks to take advantage of the opportunities that the emerging Red Age economy offers. Government work doesn’t build either the attitudes or the capacities that workers will need to take full advantage of in the changing economy; in some cases, it does the opposite.
Take, for example, credentialism. The belief that more courses and more degrees make you more “qualified” and therefore entitled to more responsible and better paid jobs is a driving force in government work as in blue society generally. It is a pillar of much of the affirmative action legislation now in place. In the emerging new economy of smaller companies, more start ups and a more service and sales oriented working environment, paper qualifications won’t count nearly as much as they used to. Your supervisors in a web content service, for example, don’t care how many degrees you have. They want to see how many hits you can generate. Employers want results and the cause and effect relationship between performance and pay is much tighter and much more dramatic in the private sector than in the public one.
Many Blacks thrive in performance based evaluation systems and businesses (think Hollywood, professional sports, the music industry) in part because the ability to demonstrate their effectiveness and drawing power insulates them from any racism or old boy networking that might otherwise sideline their careers. There is no reason why more Blacks can’t have this same kind of experience throughout the private sector where objective, performance based criteria for promotion and compensation can open doors and elevate careers.
But the bureaucratic mindset — risk averse, stability seeking, seniority-focused, process-oriented — militates against success in more entrepreneurial and performance-based systems. Eighty years ago, private sector bureaucracies and corporate structures were much more like government offices, and the gap between the Hartford city government and the Hartford Insurance Company could be bridged. That is much less true today.
Additionally, there is a strong risk that politics will lead many Blacks to consider the new economy as an enemy to be resisted rather than an opportunity to be exploited. The current Washington battle over deficits is a perfect example; in some ways it boils down to a battle of mostly white Republicans to keep taxes on mostly white rich people low while cutting spending on programs that disproportionately hire Blacks and seek to serve them. Viewed from this angle, the break up of the Blue social model looks like an attack on Blacks in specific and the poor and middle class more broadly.
Many people feel that way, including some who comment regularly here at Via Meadia. Certainly, the argument over government finance and race is going to be powered on both sides by racial feelings. There are whites who see government as a source of patronage employment for lazy, unqualified Blacks; there are Blacks who see efforts to curb government spending and keep taxes low as efforts by racist whites to shift resources from poor and middle class Blacks to wealthy whites. Both parties will try to exploit these undertones to reinforce party loyalties, with Democrats especially using these arguments to cement Black loyalty even as Democratic officials cut budgets, employment and wages in response to the logic of numbers.
The road to success for many Blacks, and for Black America as a whole, however, lies less in fighting a rearguard action on behalf of public sector workers and more in embracing a government reform agenda to harness technology to improve the quality of service while cutting costs — replacing trips to the DMV with internet sign ups for license renewal. Simultaneously, Blacks individually and collectively will advance by finding new ways to ensure that Black political clout gets behind ways of using government resources more effectively to promote a Black middle class equipped to thrive in the emerging, post-Blue model economy.
One approach that merits discussion is the question of what might be called the communitization of government. As governments seek to cut costs and payrolls, they frequently look to contract work out to private sector firms. Minority and small business set-asides ensure that Black owned or managed firms get some of this business; the process can be both inefficient and corrupt and the savings are often questionable, but the promotion of Black business is, in my view, a clear gain for African Americans and for society as a whole.
I think we can do more; I’ve written earlier about charter schools as an important new alternative in American education. Their importance goes beyond that; charter schools point towards a format that could promote a new generation of small business growth and professional responsibility among Americans around the country while improving the delivery of government services.
This post-Blue approach to government would see small, locally based partnerships or firms take over current government functions. A charter school organized by teachers and administrators who have roots in their community is one example, and some of these have been extremely successful. Perhaps unemployment offices and other government services could be remodeled in this way.
Transforming government programs as far as possible (and some are more transformable than others) from programs administered by career bureaucracies into programs managed by independent community based firms under contract is a way to use government resources to build a private, entrepreneurial middle class. In a sense, it updates 19th century land policy which built a nation of free farmers on what had once been government land.
This is a concept that makes sense all over America; it would offer particular benefits in the inner cities. Even if it doesn’t save a lot of money directly (though by encouraging competition and innovation it ultimately probably will), communitization will pay off. It will create communities of entrepreneurs and give more people the experience of being responsible for the welfare of enterprises that they themselves own and control. That social capital is what will help the United States succeed in this competitive century.
But to get there, the country as a whole and the Black leadership in particular, is going to have to let the Blue model go.