State’s Black middle class faces Extinction

Illustration by Christopher E. Harrison

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Minnesota’s middle class has measurably diminished since the current Great Recession began. And the state’s Black middle class, according to authors of a new report just released, has all but disappeared.
“The State of Minnesota’s Middle Class” was released June 15 by the local policy research organization Growth & Justice and Demos, a national policy center.
Demos Policy and Programs Vice-President Tamara Draut sadly admitted during a June 15 national teleconference in which the MSR participated that “The Black middle class entered the recession on much shakier ground…was much more fragile than the White middle class.
“Primarily it is because assets [of Blacks] were so much lower [than Whites’]. It is a legacy of redlining in the post-[World War II] era and not having access to a lot of benefits that helped expand the middle class.” Disproportionately high foreclosure rates as a result of sub-prime mortgages have also had an adverse effect, she added.
“I don’t see myself as middle class, but just above poverty level,” admitted Clara Northington of Eagan, a certified nurse’s assistant for 23 years. She told the MSR last week that her living status changed adversely after she and several other workers tried to unionize their workplace.
“When management found out we were trying to organize, I felt I was retaliated against and lost my employment,” claimed Northington. She currently is working, but only 15 hours a week at $10 an hour, and she can’t afford adequate health insurance.
Northington was among several Blacks who testified at a “good jobs speak-out” June 18 at Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis. It kicked off a 12-city “summer jobs tour” conducted by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), of which U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is co-chair.
“I would have considered myself middle class three years ago,” said Kerry Felder of Minneapolis, but her economic status changed when she returned to her Twin Cities home town to care for her ailing mother. “I was unable to find a good job until six months ago,” she said, adding that her home went into foreclosure.
“I’m a single parent with two children,” noted Coretta Van Pelt of Minneapolis, who told Ellison and other CPC members that she is now working at a temp job.
“You can’t get a great income” working at Wal-Mart, her current employer, said Gloria Taylor of Miami, Florida. Another woman who worked at the giant retailer in California for three years originally thought it was “a dream opportunity, but it became a dead-end job.”
“I’m one of the poor — I know what poor is,” a Black woman told Ellison, adding that she’s worried about a possible state shutdown. “I do need a job.”
A White woman said her 32-year real estate agent job was lost when her company was sold to a company in India. “I want to work for another 12 years, but it’s hard to get a job at age 60,” she said.
“The new poor is the former middle class,” a California woman who says she is living on a $700-a-month income, pointed out.
In a prepared statement prior to the event, Rep. Ellison, whose district includes North Minneapolis, said, “People are falling out of the middle class while the rich get even richer.” He later told the audience at Wesley Church, “The Republican majority is not going to pass a jobs bill. Everything has to be about putting America back to work. If they are not talking about that, they aren’t talking about anything.”
After the event, the Minneapolis congressman told the MSR, “Blacks and people of color are getting hit harder [by the recession]. But the most important thing to understand is that nobody is escaping it other than the rich. I want Black folk to say, ‘We’re getting hit harder, but it’s not like we’re in this alone — there are a lot of White folk getting smacked around economically, too.’”
The new middle-class report points out that although Minnesota workers have fared favorably overall in terms of wages, benefits and employment levels compared to other U.S. states, many workers have seen their earnings stagnate or even decline over the last 30 years.
As a result working Minnesotans today see a lack of good jobs, declining access to benefits, and higher costs to raise children, the report notes. Other key points in the report include:
Average wage earnings, which peaked at $39,312 in 2001, have fallen nine percent to $35,700, leaving a typical Minnesota worker at the same earnings level as in 1999.
The proportion of Minnesota workers who lack access to health insurance through an employer increased from 14 percent in 2000 to nearly 23 percent in 2010.
Manufacturing jobs have declined while service-related jobs have increased.
Housing is more expensive, and owning an automobile along with the present high price of gas has “further strained middle-class family budgets.”
Young workers are increasingly less likely to have access to health insurance and retirement benefits through their employers.
“The middle class in this country didn’t just happen, [and] the unraveling of the middle class didn’t just happen, either. It is the result of decades of making this mess,” believes Draut.
Ellison pointed out after the Wesley Church event that getting a good job with good wages to provide a better life for workers and their families was once “the economic engine of our country” and the key means of achieving middle-class status, but that is no longer the case in this country.
“Being middle class is not what it used to be,” said the Congressman. “The reason why we say ‘middle class’ is that unless you’re too old or too sick to work, everybody ought to be middle class… The middle class…is shrinking.”
When asked who’s to blame — President Obama, Congress, state and local government or big business — Draut said, “I think there is a lot of blame that goes around,” adding that “tax cuts, deregulation and disinvestment” are contributing factors as well.
Northington fixed blame on elected officials “trying to cut all kinds of funding and make it impossible for people to survive. I feel President Obama has done a great job in trying to provide jobs for lower income and middle-class [people].
“I definitely feel that lower income and middle-class people [should] be able to form and organize unions…to have a voice in the workplace. Management and the upper class isn’t having any problems feeding their families or getting health care for themselves, but we do,” Northington said.
“We’ve got to really build a movement,” concluded Ellison about his tour, which is expected to make stops in Detroit, Milwaukee, New York City, Miami, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Houston, Portland, Oakland and Seattle this summer.
“This is a ‘we’ movement. This isn’t about some great leader, [President] Obama or a little Congressman like me — this is about all of us. America should work for anyone who wants to work for a living.”

The Minnesota middle class report can be found at www.demos.org. For more information on the summer jobs tour, go to SpeakOut Tour.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.