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Tough Times: African-American Realities Beneath the Breakthroughs

When the Congressional Black Caucus held its annual legislative conference in Washington last month, there was much to crow about.


Since its gathering in the fall a year ago, the Black lawmakers and their nationwide network of supporters had played a key role in helping turn out the vote that helped elect Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president.


With the new Congress, several caucus members had risen to the chairmanships of key committees in the House of Representatives.


Meanwhile, more Black people with clout have been appointed to key positions in the new administration, from chief of the Environmental Protection Agency to U.S. Attorney General. The new attorney general, Eric Holder, has since promised more renewed focus on enforcing civil rights laws and reviewing mandatory minimum prison sentences.


Beneath the exciting veneer, however, at various meetings during the conference and as participants went back to their hometowns across the country, the mounting troubles besetting Black America – from HIV/AIDS to the soaring unemployment triggered by the economy’s collapse last year— sobered up even the most euphoric. The test of America’s mettle to survive is fast becoming an acute stress test for Black America on many fronts.


Black unemployment hit 15.4 percent in September, up from 11.4 percent the same month a year ago and nearly double the 8.5 percent rate of September 1999. The nation’s overall unemployment rate in September was 9.8 percent, including a 9 percent unemployment rate for whites and 12.7 for non-White Hispanics. People still working, meanwhile, have been hit with pay cuts, furloughs and reduced benefits, further weakening Black purchasing power. Pension, investment and retirement fund losses have eroded millions of dollars in gains on paper for thousands more Black families. The poverty rate for Blacks in 2008 stood at 22 percent, triple that of White Americans, according to the Census Bureau. The federal poverty level is an annual income of $22,025 or less for a family of four.


Meanwhile, the dream of home ownership has turned into a nightmare for thousands of Blacks who stretched earlier in the decade to purchase homes that today are worth far less than their purchase or refinance value. Living on the margins, as most Black families did before the economy went bust, has become far more widespread.


“Everybody has deteriorated,” says Dr. Andrew Brimmer, noted Washington-based economist who became the first Black appointed to the Federal Reserve Board in 1966. “It’s been much worse for Black Americans, greater than the two-to-one ratio that prevailed before the downtown,” says Brimmer, referring to the historical economic gulfs, such as income, between Blacks and Whites.


To illustrate the economic stress on Blacks, analyst David Bositis of the Washington-based Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies cites a 2007 report on consumer finances in the February 2009 Federal Reserve Board Bulletin that found the median net worth of a Black family in 2007 was $17,000 compared with $170,400 for a non-Hispanic White family. The gap has only widened since the nation’s economy collapsed, most analysts agree. Meanwhile, Census Bureau data found per capita income for Blacks in 2008 was $18,054, compared with $31,313 for Whites.


The financial stress is “throwing a lot of people back,” demographics expert Roderick Harrison says. He and others interviewed said much of today’s trouble, for the Black middle class in particular, stems from individual decisions to take on significant debt this decade, particularly purchasing homes and other high-priced tangible assets, based on the expectation of steadily increasing incomes. The promise of rapidly rising home values that would create opportunities for home equity loans fed that optimism and willingness to stretch.


“All of those people have gotten caught now,” says Harrison, an associate professor at Howard University in Washington. “Their incomes have not increased and they can’t pay their way out of their new debt. Heaven forbid you lose your job or have to take a pay cut. You are in trouble.”


Not every Black household is being hit to the same degree, Harrison says, but the impact is widespread and, for about 15 percent of the Black population, significantly serious such as foreclosures and bankruptcies. “That’s a high casualty rate. What’s probably going to become a decline in the standard of living is going to be very stressful for people.”


‘A Black Disease’


It’s not just the sudden implosion of the nation’s economy that undermines the fragile health of Black America.


The incarceration of Black people is still on the rise. Nearly 1 million Black people were in the nation’s state and federal prisons and local jails in 2008. That’s up by 52,700 people since 2000 when Blacks accounted for nearly half the nation’s prison population, despite being approximately 13 percent of the nation’s overall population.


On the health front, research by the Centers for Disease Control and other health groups shows the HIV/AIDS disease is reaching epidemic proportions in the Black community with tragic consequences.


A 2006 survey of AIDS victims found Blacks made up 45 percent of the newly infected AIDS victims that year. Nearly half of them died. Every year more than 56,000 people contract AIDS, the studies have found with Blacks constituting nearly half of all new cases. Of that group, nearly two-thirds of the cases are among women and 70 percent are among adolescents.


“AIDS today is a Black disease,” says Phil Wilson, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based Black Aids Institute, one of the leading advocacy organizations for AIDS education and research. “If we lose the battle against AIDS, we lose all the other things we are fighting for,” said Wilson, who has been among the leading advocates of AIDS victims trying to get Black leaders across the spectrum to pay more attention to the issue.


Even before the nation’s economy imploded, Wilson’s group found that only 10 percent of all monies spent on AIDS by American-based donors and foundations were spent on causes in the United States. He speculated it would be tougher now, given the state of foundation endowments, to expect to change that equation soon.


“Foundation support, meager before the economic downturn, is even tougher today,” Wilson says. “The percentages might change but it will be in a shrinking pie.”


Less to Give


Even religious organizations are feeling the pinch of the economy’s collapse.


At New York’s Greater Allen A.M. E. Cathedral, one of the nation’s so-called mega churches, giving is off by a $250,000 so far this year, said the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former member of Congress  and former president of Wilbeforce University. To compensate for the lower income, the church has cut salaries for Flake, his wife and the church staff and frozen salaries for the church’s 142-member school staff where enrollment shrank to 597 this year from nearly 700 students a year ago.


“If I’m off (in church contributions). I think a number of smaller churches are off even more because we have upper-income members who can carry us through this. Churches overall are not in a position to do their historical mission and give money to outside causes they support. The outside giving is going to be cut,” Flake says, citing donations the church would routinely make each year to such groups as the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “We’re managing our way through it.”


“Overall, it’s a struggle, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” says Deborah A. Cole, president and chief executive officer of Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Co. in Nashville, Tenn., one of the nation’s oldest Black banks. “Everyone wants to see things move quickly but it’s going to take some time to get there.”


While a third of the nation’s Black-owned banks got federal aid from the government’s bank bailout program to stabilize the nation’s banks, most small, community banks are still standing and cautiously lending money, says Cole, whose bank did not take federal bank bailout funds.  


Steps in the Right Direction


There are a few flashes of light in this largely gloomy picture.


On the prison front, the nation’s law-and-order campaign race to lock up even minor offenders appears to be slowing. Despite the rising number of Blacks in prison, their percentages dropped to 39.5 last year from 43.9 percent in 2002. Prison reform advocates say part of the decline reflects a change in how inmates are classified by race and ethnic group and a possible decline in harsh sentences for small-time drug offenders. Meanwhile, financially strapped California is set to release nearly 20 percent of its prison population to ease overcrowding and the financial burden of incarceration.


The prison news is a mixed blessing, says David Bositis of the Joint Center, noting the economy is so tough today that getting a job, “is like winning the lottery.”


Also, the HIV/AIDS awareness and education campaign is picking up support from a broader base of people in Black communities, says Wilson of the AIDS institute.


At the CBC legislative conference, more members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended the institute’s half-day summit. Today, more than 14 civil rights groups – ranging from the NAACP to the National Council of Negro Women to 100 Black Men of America – have designated a full-time AIDS coordinator, he says.


Even the clergy, which has wrestled with the issue in a religious context, “are responding in a robust way,” says Wilson, noting that some nationally known Black religious leaders have began to publicly address the AIDS issue in a positive way. “I think Black leaders are really committed to addressing HIV/AIDS right now.”


There’s also a lot of hope placed on the leadership of President Obama, with his economic stimulus plan, health care reform push and renewed focus on elementary, secondary and higher education.


“The prospects right now look much better than they have at any time in the last eight years,” Bositis says. “It’s like the beginning of ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Things are improving but improving from a pretty bad floor.”


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