Personal Finance: Blacks and the federal budget

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 3:13 PM

I often wonder what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would say about the economic state of black America. Would he see progress? Or would he be disappointed at how far African Americans still have to go?

The unemployment rate for blacks is 15.6 percent, compared with 9 percent for the country overall. Blacks earn only 57 cents for each dollar of white median family income. And more than 8 percent of blacks have lost homes to foreclosure so far compared with 4.5 percent of whites.

Post columnist Courtland Milloy has an answer to the economic challenges blacks face.

"Spread out, black people; scatter, if you can," Milloy wrote recently. "Maybe it's better to rent in an integrated neighborhood, with good schools and more job opportunities, than to own in a black one where property values aren't going to rise that much and may vanish altogether if your neighbor goes into foreclosure."

Some blacks have moved to better their situation.

"The 60-year escape from segregation and racism that brought American blacks to the North, has reversed course. Better jobs and quality of life in the South are beckoning," the Associated Press reported recently.

The nation's black population has grown by roughly 1.7 million over the last decade. About 75 percent of that growth occurred in the South -- primarily metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Charlotte, N.C.

As Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, told the AP: "It's no coincidence that the shift is happening as we encounter economic turmoil that is being felt disproportionately among blacks, such as mortgage foreclosures, loss of jobs and economic devastation in major Northern hubs."

But whether they stay or go, there are tough times ahead for many blacks if the budget cuts President Obama recently proposed are passed, according to several black leaders.

Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III, host of the radio program "Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon" and a teaching associate at Howard University, wrote on The Grio: "Understanding that the president's submission is the first salvo in a long budget battle many are asking why start with such steep cuts to much needed social programs. Why start the negotiation process with programs that represent such a small fraction of the federal budget and will disproportionately impact African-Americans?"

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also criticized the proposed budget cuts.

"Rebuilding our economy on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans is something that I simply can not accept," Cleaver said in a statement. "For example, the President's recommendations to slash Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding that ensures economic growth in our communities is troubling. Moreover, the recommendations to consolidate programs in the Department of Education that overwhelmingly support the educational development of our children, and to freeze salaries of federal workers who in many instances--in communities of color--are disproportionately the primary bread winners in their homes is equally problematic."

As reported in the Chicago Sun Times, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. also attacked Obama's budget.

"How can we stop the Republican cuts when the president has one-upped them?" Jackson said in a statement. "As the president, he should be the last line of defense for the most vulnerable Americans, instead of the first one to cut."

So what do you think of the President's proposed budget? Send your comments to Put "Budget Blues" in the subject line.

Race and the Recession

Join me for "Behind the Headlines: A Discussion on Race and the Recession in Metro Washington." The free forum will be on Wed. Feb. 23 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at The Rennie Forum, Prince George's Community College, 301 Largo Rd., Upper Marlboro, Md.

The panel will, among other things, look at how economic policies in Washington have affected African Americans. The forum will also examine the first of three public opinion polls on issues facing the black community, conducted by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

I'll be moderating the discussion panel, which includes Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; Michael A. Fletcher, a Washington Post national economics reporter; Jeff Johnson, a Black Entertainment Television journalist and motivational speaker; Dr. Julianne Malveaux, a noted economist and educator; Sophia A. Nelson, a contributor to The who also covers the White House for JET Magazine; and the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network.

To RSVP or to submit a question for the panel, please e-mail For more details about the events, visit the Behind the Headlines Web site.

Money In the Bank

Debts are down. Savings are up. As the Post's Neil Irwin reports, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that compared with the summer of 2008, when consumer debt peaked, Americans now have 7 percent less mortgage debt, 12 percent less in auto loans and 15 percent less credit card debt. Plus, Americans are now saving at nearly triple the rate they were between 2007 and 2009, setting aside 5.3 percent of their disposable income in December, according to the Commerce Department.

Of course there are many cheering on consumers' newfound frugality. The hope is that it will benefit the economy because these debt-free consumers will have more money to spend. I just hope if people need to spend (notice I used the word "need," not "want"), they won't go back to their old ways and pile on the debt.

Responses to 'Consorting With A Co-Worker'

Office relationships can be risky business, but it seems few people care. The Vault 2011 Office Romance Survey found that 65 percent of respondents said the recession has had no effect on their willingness to take romantic risks at work.

For last week Color of Money question, I wanted to know: "Have you ever had a workplace romance go bad?"

"Years ago, I worked for a large company where I met most of the folks I ended up dating," said K. Lubinsky of Galloway, Ohio. "When these relationships went south, it was beyond awkward and very difficult to maintain a professional relationship. One day I got into an elevator and there were three of my ex's. Nobody knew about the other one. I was shaking in my shoes, as I really didn't know what any of them would say. This was the longest elevator ride of my life. I decided right then and there that I would never put myself in this situation again."

Sometimes the office romance is more than a fling.

"My husband and I have been married 36 years after meeting and dating at work," wrote Susan Spengler of Bethany Beach, Del.

Sara M. of Sykesville, Md. also met her husband at work.

"We met at work at a government agency," she wrote. "My office had a function that supported his office, though I did not support him. We married six months after our first date, less than a year from when I started there. Twenty-one years later we are divorced."

Hey, at least her marriage lasted longer than some jobs.

Tax Tips for the 2011 Filing Season

Looking for help with your tax return? Well, the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program offers free tax help to people who earn less than $49,000 a year. Most locations offer free electronic filing. The Tax Counseling for the Elderly Program offers free tax help to taxpayers who are 60 and older.

Visit the IRS's Web site for more information.

Tia Lewis contributed to this e-letter.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

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