Why a government shutdown would hurt blacks more than most
The figures on the number of blacks in federal government positions tell the story of just who will be hurt the most in a government shutdown. According to a 2010 study by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, blacks make up nearly one out of five non-postal federal employees. The disproportionate number of black federal employees is more than a paper figure if the government issues temporary pink slips to nearly one million federal employees in any shutdown. They have rents and home mortgages to pay, children’s tuition due, food and clothes to buy.
In short the human toll would be huge, and would go far beyond the $100 million dollar per day that some experts estimate a government shutdown would cost. The disproportionate hurt that a government shutdown will inflict on blacks is no anomaly. Public employment, and the federal government being a centerpiece of that, has been the economic life blood of black communities for generations.
A recent University of California Center for Labor Research and Education study by Steven Pitts on blacks in the public sector, found that in the decade before and after the Great Depression, blacks made up nearly one out of three public employees nationally. The numbers were so great for a simple reason. The doors in private companies were largely slammed shut to blacks in anything other than the most menial and servile jobs. And even these jobs were available only because most white men wouldn’t touch them. In the public sector discrimination in pay, type of work, testing, and promotions was rampant. The postal service was a near textbook example of that.
It was common for blacks with advanced degrees to be clustered into jobs as custodians, mail carriers, and much later window clerks in post offices in black neighborhoods. But despite the discrimination and bottom rung status of blacks in the post office and federal agencies, these were still considered plum jobs for blacks. They were stable, guaranteed a steady paycheck, and health benefits and a pension.
As more opportunities opened up for blacks in federal and other public sector jobs, the wage differential gradually narrowed between what blacks could make in the private sector and the public sector. By 2008, the gap had been overcome and blacks overall were paid significantly higher wages in public employment than the private sector.
But there was the new threat that could reverse the decades of progress that blacks had made to gain parity and more in public employment. This was and is the full blown assault by the GOP in Congress and governors and state legislatures on public employee wages, pensions, benefits and rights. The assault is combined with the other twin threat of ballooning state and local budget deficits. In the past two years alone more than 400,000 public employees have been axed by state and local governments. As in years past, blacks have been hurt the most by the job losses.
The ferocious battle between Congressional Democrats, the Obama Administration and the GOP over how hard to swing the meat ax on government spending and budget cuts is if nothing else a battle over how deep and how fast to shrink the federal government services and employment. One can’t be separated from the other. Service and program cuts mean employee cuts. The proof of that came fast and furious sixteen years ago when then House speaker Newt Gingrich and the GOP hamstrung government during its budget battle with the Clinton administration. The Social security Administration, just to name one agency, immediately furloughed more than 61,000 workers, but soon found it was unable to process benefit checks for millions of people. Officials had to bring back nearly 50,000 workers. The delay wreaked monumental hardship on millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, that are dependent on social security payments as their major if not their sole source of income. The momentary furlough then also meant the loss of jobs in the Social Security administration for a period of time for thousands of African-Americans.
A government shutdown could have the same devastating impact on Social Security recipients today, and the employees who administer and process the payments.
This is only be the start of the woe. The shutdown would also affect airlines, roads, hospitals, schools, food and tourism that rely on government agency support, funding and direct contact with federal employees. Again, the temporary hardship the shutdown would cause tens of thousands of African-Americans would be enormous.
Even if a government shutdown is averted, it will not spare African-Americans the pain that is on tap in the imminent downsizing of government that both the Democrats have agreed to and the GOP has demanded as its price for doing government business. No matter which scenario Congress and the Obama administration play out, it’s still the time tested variation of last hired, first fired for blacks. This time it will be courtesy of a shutdown or truncated federal government.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on The Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on blogtalkradio.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com
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