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$17 an Hour | The Black Workforce

A Tenuous Hold on the Middle Class

African Americans On Shifting Ground

By Alec Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page A01

MIAMI -- A couple of months ago, Kayasa Cobb entered a dim, cramped cubicle to apply for a job paying about $7 an hour selling clothes at Burdines-Macy's.

Then she started thinking. She already had a full-time job as an executive at an image-consulting business earning $39,000 a year -- slightly more than the national average of $17 an hour -- and was strapped for time as it was. Her husband was holding down two jobs, at a library and a movie theater, to help pay the expense of raising two small children. Did the family really need a fourth income to get by?

Carla Harris, chief executive of HeavenSent Consultants Inc., left, talks with operations manager Kayasa Cobb in their Miami office. Cobb, who has a master's degree, briefly considered taking on a second job to help make ends meet. (David Adame For The Washington Post)

About This Series

This is the fifth in a series of occasional articles about changes in the middle of the U.S. workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 an hour, with such benefits as health care and pensions. Previous articles addressed topics such as the growth in itinerant workers and the tough decisions faced by businesses trying to preserve jobs. The next article will look at the prospects for jobs to take the place of those lost.

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Post reporter Alec Klein was online to discuss this article.
The Gap Remains: African Americans have made economic strides in the past few decades, but still lag in income and experience higher unemployment.
_____Post Series - $17 An Hour_____
A Rough Ride for Schwinn Bicycle (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)
Slowdown Forces Many to Wander for Work (The Washington Post, Nov 9, 2004)
Permanent Job Proves An Elusive Dream (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)

"It was absurd," she says of the department store job, which she ultimately decided not to pursue. "It was a crazy idea."

Even as African Americans and other minorities have made economic progress in the last 40 years, many of those reaching the middle-income rung, like Cobb, are finding it a hollow promise. In earlier decades, a union-protected factory worker or government employee earning such a wage could expect a comfortable life with company-provided health and retirement benefits, and perhaps enough money for indulgences such as the occasional new car.

Now, though, blacks and other minorities reaching the economic middle find the ground shifting.

By all rights, Cobb should be making it. She studied evenings and weekends to graduate with a master's degree in human resources earlier this year, and then was hired as operations manager for an African American-owned business, a springboard -- she hopes -- to becoming an entrepreneur herself.

But the 33-year-old and her husband aren't even close to making it. "Why don't we own our home?" she wants to know. "Why don't we have money in the bank? Why are we just making ends meet?"

Changes in the global economy and advances in technology have, of course, buffeted middle-income workers of all races. Blacks, however, have faced some particular challenges.

Beneficiaries of the post-World War II boom in manufacturing, they have lost a disproportionate number of jobs as the factory workforce declined in recent years. While African Americans have made substantial advances in the service sector and have been opening small businesses at a pace quicker than whites, other vulnerabilities work to offset those gains. Employer-sponsored health care and retirement benefits have been eroding throughout the economy, but, in the case of private pensions, have declined faster for blacks. With generally fewer resources to fall back on -- the median net worth of African American families is $19,000, about 15 percent of that for whites -- home down payments move out of reach, and periods of sluggish wage growth, like the current one, hit even harder.

Subject historically to higher-rate credit cards and mortgages, even black families with steady and respectable incomes find themselves treading water or falling behind. According to a recent study by Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, black families are more than six times more likely to file for bankruptcy than whites.

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