During a recent lunch, a man I know talked of the ravages of having been out of work for several months. His telephone had been cut off, his preschool daughter was finding it hard to tell her friends that her daddy no longer has an important job, and the lower-paying work he finally had gotten a couple of weeks before we talked brought with it a shrunken salary, a tiny, shared office and reduced self-esteem.
I was surprised when we left the restaurant to see that he still had his snappy foreign sports car. Then it occurred to me that the shiny automobile was no dispute to his tale. It simply was a symbol of his former success that would be the last thing he would let go.
In some ways, this man is like a whole lot of people: The plight of the middle class under the Reagan Revolution is not a particularly happy one. He won't give up his car; a lot of other people are too proud to go on welfare. But in a lot of other ways this man is different from the rest of the middle class that is feeling the squeeze of Reaganomics, because my friend is a 30ish black.
He comes from a particular generation--blacks who are first-generation middle class and first-generation affluent. The booming economy of the 1960s was the impetus for the creation of much of this group, which came of age during the civil rights movement with its rising expectations.
It was a hopeful time and this was a hopeful generation. Our parents were Depression children with Depression mentalities. But we did not have those hang-ups and spent money in a different way. This generation would not have been caught dead in a big, gaudy Cadillac, preferring instead the quiet elegance of foreign cars.
This generation had a particular view of the world, and while many made wise investments, others spent more freely. They could be seen everywhere, working in career-oriented jobs, moving elegantly through society. And though their earnings still lagged behind whites and the plight of much of black America was not substantially changed, this new generation of nouveau-middle class was on the move.
Some worried that a gulf was developing between this relatively small group and the masses of black poor. Others saw the gulf within families, where one sibling lucked out but another did not and remained stuck in a dead-end job or on welfare--or perhaps even in jail, a casualty of the desperate poverty from which most blacks have been unable to escape. This was the generation that beat the rap.
Some neglected to prepare themselves for the technological jobs of the future and instead worked in social programs that delivered services to the poor. Others cracked the corporate monolith but often could get no further than what was clearly an "equal opportunity position." Many went into business for themselves, setting up consulting firms, for example, that boomed as government boomed.
Their problems, like those of the middle class in general, began in the '70s, and many never recovered from that decade's recessions. But that decline was a simmering one. Ronald Reagan brought it to a boil.
So just as whites who never thought they would need food stamps or unemployment compensation found they suddenly did, this once hopeful generation of blacks was also caught in a squeeze. They were the last hired and first fired. The Republicans started riffing, demoting and depowering them. Blacks have always had to depend disproportionately on the federal government for employment, and now the professionals who once delivered social services found themselves out of a job just as their former clients found themselves without checks. Consulting firms had to work for the Defense Department, or gear their operations toward the states rather than the federal government, or else go to bankruptcy court.
The hopeful generation has become the baleful generation. If there is a hint of a silver lining in this cloud, it is that the Reagan Revolution has shaken them out of a false sense of security.
For blacks, the situation is most acute. It was the blood of the civil rights movement that spawned the changes that gave so many hope. Many people who were affluent at age 30 had been poor at age 15. They know both ends of the spectrum and this has produced a certain fatalism in some.
Another friend put it this way: "We're back, not at square one, but at minus-four. But what runs through your mind is that if middle-class status is so easily taken away from blacks, what is the point of struggling so hard?"