Recession has taken hidden toll on black families
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The recession has hit the Pittsburgh region more lightly than the rest of the nation -- with one notable exception.
African-American workers already lagged whites more in Pittsburgh than elsewhere in the country before the recession began, and since then, they have fallen even further behind.
That was the bottom line of an analysis by William Rodgers III, a Rutgers University economist who spoke here Monday at a seminar on black employment at the University of Pittsburgh's Center on Race and Social Problems.
In 2007, black families' median income nationally was 61.3 percent of whites' median income and fell to 60 percent over the next two years as the recession took hold. In Pittsburgh, though, blacks started out at just 51.5 percent of whites' incomes and fell to 43.2 percent by 2009, Mr. Rodgers' figures showed.
When he broke down the numbers, Mr. Rodgers found that the biggest change here in those two years was that the percentage of black families earning less than $25,000 soared from 40 percent to 50 percent of all black wage earners, which he speculated was driven by people falling out of the next highest group, those earning about $25,000 to $50,000.
The impact of the recession on black families in America has often been hidden from public view, Mr. Rodgers said. Ironically, though, as more white males in the middle class have lost jobs, the economic problems affecting both white and black males have become more visible.
"There are disproportionate effects on African-Americans when the economy struggles," the Rutgers professor said, "but because of the way the general economy has changed, those impacts have begun to cross racial lines, and it provides us with a political and strategic opening for dealing with these issues."
Ronald Mincy, a Columbia University sociologist who also spoke at the conference, said that when society focuses on young, low-income black men, it can obscure the general economic misfortunes of those with too little education.
"The more we paint this issue with a black brush, the more we ignore the fact that the employment challenges for men without a college degree are broad-based," he said.
Mr. Mincy, who specializes in strengthening the role of fathers, noted that poor white and black men both face a huge challenge in paying child support for children who don't live with them.
"Men in this nation owe $170 billion in arrears on child support," he said, "and the majority of them earn $20,000 a year or less. And when they live in states that assess penalties and interest on those arrears, that just makes a bad situation worse."
Mr. Rodgers, chief economist for the Heldrich Center on Workforce Development at Rutgers, noted that African-American college graduates not only start out earning less than white college graduates, but the gap also grows worse the older they get.
One study showed that black college graduates who worked full time in America earned about 11 percent less than their white counterparts between the ages of 25 and 34, but by the time they reached the 45-to-54-year-old age bracket, the gap had grown to 42 percent.
There are several possible reasons for that, Mr. Rodgers said, but one major one is that black college graduates go into public sector jobs such as teaching and government services at a much higher rate than whites do, and those jobs pay less than many private sector professions and have lower wage increases over time.
For lower-income black men, Mr. Mincy said a push to expand the federal earned income tax credit could provide a major boost.
The federal program provides an average subsidy of about $5,000 for a woman with two children, he said, but gives a single man only about $400, which is barely more than the typical $325 fee at a tax preparation office.
In some states such as New York, the program has been expanded to give bigger benefits to men in hopes that it will encourage them both to seek work and to keep up with their child support payments.
Even if Congress would expand the earned income credit for non-custodial fathers nationwide, though, there would need to be a major publicity campaign to make them aware of it, he added.
"It's not the case that if we create a program, they will come. Low- and moderate- income men receive so few services today that they do not have a general awareness of how these things work."
First Published June 7, 2011 12:00 am