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Black Depression

The October employment numbers deepened the gloom among African Americans and those (including the Via Meadia team) who believe that the United States as a whole cannot progress as it should unless African Americans are getting ahead too. As a report from Think Progress reminds us, in October, African American unemployment rose almost a full percentage point to 14.3 percent.

As we’ve noted in earlier posts, unemployment is only part of the story. America’s Black middle class is facing a crisis of historic proportions. African Americans were among the biggest losers in the housing bubble; well intentioned but ill advised policy changes intended to get more low income families and marginal households into home ownership kicked in just in time to lure African American families into the housing market at the peak of the bubble. The loss of wealth and savings has been nothing short of catastrophic; decades of progress in building net worth for middle class and lower middle class minority families have been wiped out since 2007.

Some of President Obama’s political opponents are using these numbers to bludgeon the administration, but politics aside, the crisis of the Black middle class is a crisis for the whole country. The Think Progress report repeats boilerplate liberal, blue model orthodoxies about the situation but if anything it understates the severity and significance of the problem; the biggest sources of middle class employment for African American workers (government and manufacturing) are drying up and for a variety of reasons African Americans are less likely to benefit from the new jobs that are opening up or to have the access to capital for small business start ups.

But ritualistically invoking the classical tropes of blue social policy won’t help Black America. Traditional blue model approaches are no longer feasible: funds for new urban initiatives will be in short supply for the foreseeable future, affirmative action in education is in retreat, manufacturing will not again provide enough high wage jobs to support a growing middle class, and government hiring (direct and in organizations like the USPS) cannot and will not expand at the rates that would be required to pick up the slack. Neither wholesale industrial protection nor strict immigration restriction (both policies supported by some in the African American community in the hope that these measures would increase demand for low skilled labor and therefore create employment opportunities and raise wages for, among others, African American workers) will be adopted anytime soon.

If President Obama loses next Tuesday’s election, the incoming Romney administration will need to think hard about policy responses to the crisis in precisely that element of the African American community that provides social stability and a ladder of hope. And if President Obama wins reelection, his team will have to come to grips with the devastation the last four years have brought to his most loyal supporters and, one hopes, begin to think seriously and realistically about policy changes that might do some good.

Blue has failed, but Black isn’t going away. The last generation of social policy aimed at helping more African Americans join the middle class. But now the middle class itself is passing through a wrenching transition, and we need a new conversation about what this means for African American families and young people launching careers in a changing world.

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