Blacks, Latinos, and the precariousness of “middle class”

Today I listened to a segment on Democracy Now! about a new report that’s out from Demos and Brandeis University on the state of the Black and Latino middle class in the United States. The study, entitled “Economic (In)Security: The Experience of the African American and Latino Middle Classes,” finds that three-out-of-four Black and four-out-of-five Latino middle-class families are economically insecure and at high risk of slipping out of the middle class. From the report, which can be downloaded as a PDF from the Demos website:

African-American and Latino families have more difficulty moving into the middle class, and families that do enter the middle class are less secure and at higher risk than the middle class as a whole. Overall, more African-American and Latino middle-class families are at risk of falling out of the middle class than are secure. This is in sharp contrast to the overall middle class, in which 31 percent are secure and 21 percent are at risk. Specifically:

  • Only 26 percent of African-American middle-class families have the combination of as- sets, education, sufficient income, and health insurance to ensure middle-class financial security. One in three (33 percent) is at high risk of falling out of the middle class.
  • Less than one in five Latino families (18 percent) is securely in the middle class. More than twice as many (41 percent) of Latino families are in danger of slipping out of the middle class.
  • African-American middle-class families are less secure and at greater risk than the middle class as a whole on four of the five indicators of security and vulnerability [named by the report as assets, education, housing, budget, and healthcare]. Latino middle-class families are less secure and at greater risk on all five indicators.

Jennifer Wheary, a senior fellow at Demos and one of the co-authors of the report, elaborated on Democracy Now!:

And what we found was when we compared the situation of white middle-class families to African Americans and Latinos, there were vast differences. You know, and what was astounding to us was really looking at—these are, you know, African American and Latino families that, by all sense and purposes, have achieved the American dream, people who, you know, have two earners, two professional earners in the household, you know, maybe are trying to own a home or do own a home, you know, very—have achieved all the aspirations that we typically go for. But even among those people, when you look at, you know, where they’re weak economically, we found that about two-in-five Latino middle-class families are in danger of falling out of the middle class. They’re so financially vulnerable, don’t have assets. Maybe somebody in the household is uninsured. And one-in-three African American middle-class families are also in danger, so vulnerable, so weak, that they’re in danger of falling out of the middle class.

I haven’t read the report yet, but when I do, I fully expect to cry. In fact, as I listened to the segment on the bus home today, I actually found myself tearing up; not only because the larger injustices behind what I was hearing, but because it hit a very personal chord.

My parents came from large, poor Puerto Rican families, my dad born in Brooklyn and my mom immigrating from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. They struggled and saved and busted their asses to get to the place they were financially by the time I came around in 1981. My dad was self-employed, running a small general contracting company with his brother; my Mom worked part-time as his office manager.

I grew up most certainly middle class, and it was a pretty sweet life. We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination either. I went to private Catholic schools from kindergarten to high school, and then my family was able to send me to one of the most expensive colleges in the country. I got some federal grants and financial aid, and they struggled to make up the considerable difference so that I wouldn’t be saddled with significant student loan debt right out of college. We rented an apartment until I was eleven, and then my dad was able to go in on the house that his newly-widowed godfather owned, so they owned the house that we all lived in together. I got to take piano lessons until I was too stubborn a teenager to practice anymore, and I even got to travel a bit. And I got to live blissfully aware of whatever financial troubles or worries my parents had; I didn’t want for anything.

My parents sold their house in Jersey and moved to Florida in 1999. George W. Bush stole the election in 2000, 9/11 happened, and the economy started tanking. Florida wasn’t a friendly place for an unknown general contractor with dark skin. Between the shitty economy, the starting from scratch, and the racism that my dad encountered when looking for work, things started to slip. And like the rest of the 41% of Latinos losing their grip on being middle class, my family didn’t have any assets besides our house; they didn’t go to college; and until my mom got a full-time job at a drugstore, neither of them had health insurance.

These days, my parents are doing all right, relatively speaking. But money is definitely a constant struggle for them. They rent an apartment just down the street from the one we lived in until I was eleven. They both work full-time, my dad still doing general contracting and my mom running what I guarantee is the most orderly and beautifully laid out cosmetics department in CVS history. My dad pays a ridiculous amount of money to fill up his truck’s gas tank multiple times a week so that he can actually get work done. Thankfully my mom gets health insurance for her and my dad through her job, because two years ago my dad was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disease akin to cancer. His treatment costs thousands upon thousands of dollars each month; every time I think about what would happen if my mom didn’t have that insurance, I nearly freak the fuck out, so I try not to think about it. My dad’s sick and his illness makes him tired and weak; my mom has bad knees and stands up all day at the job; they are 62 and 60 respectively, and retirement is no where in sight, despite all their impressive achievements, all their hard work, all their perseverance.

Sometimes I look at what they’ve gone through and continue to go through and I think I’m a bloody selfish fool for using my fancy college education to work cheap for non-profit organizations while living in the most expensive city in the country. My partner and I both stress and speculate about how we can do the work that’s important to us for the communities that are important to us and that we come from while also helping to support our families AND getting ourselves to a secure place. I look at my own debt and my utter lack of assets, I see 30 approaching, I read reports like these, and I am fucking scared.

In a way, hearing about this report and reading a bit of it is affirming. It’s affirming to see my family’s story reflected in the report, to see what my parents have gone through in light of what so many other Latino and Black families are going through. Talking about my own class and my family’s class is always really weird for me, because it’s hard to reconcile the really good, comfortable childhood I had with the struggle my parents endure now and the precarious financial situation that both they and I are in. I appreciate reading a report like this because it solidly positions us in the context of a larger trend, connects what we’re going through to larger systems of inequality and injustice. Company in difficulty is still company, I guess. And additionally, reading reports like these only reaffirms the importance of the organizations that I work for as they struggle for economic and racial justice.

But it also me sad. So sad for everyone who teeters on the brink of financial disaster, for my parents and all the other sixty-somethings who may never get that ultimate reward of the American dream – to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. So sad, and so angry. So very fucking angry.

Cross-posted at AngryBrownButch


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14 Responses to Blacks, Latinos, and the precariousness of “middle class”

  1. shah8 says:

    This is something I have to explain regularly to people of other races. It usually comes up in discussions about why African or Afro-Carribean are so much more the go-getters than Black people who have generational ties in America.

    I have to explain that well, yes, Black people once upon a time showed that same enthusiasm, however, one of the hidden factors about American structural racism is that it is *very* difficult to pass on wealth and knowledge to younger generations. If that were not true, well, there have been Black millionaires since the 19th century, and probably earlier, and we should have Black Blue Bloods today. They don’t exist. Jack, will have a harder time seeing to it that his children, should he have any, get a full education than his parents did, when it is *easier* for white parents to procure an education for their children as the generations progress. Jack will have trouble passing along wealth to his children and grandchildren, let alone preserving it in his old age.

    There are many reasons this is true, but in the general, the main reason is that laws that protect the wealth of White Americans are not in force for any minorities to any great degree. There are many fraudsters who target minorities. There are many tricks that unscrupulous real estate developers have in divesting minorities of their land, even during the probate process. Also, there are many informal social barriers to getting access to safe investments or access to good schools and teachers for young ones.

    Lastly, groups of wealthy minorities have always been fair game for envious white people. Whenever an entire community of minorities has grown in wealth relative to the surrounding white population, well, something bad usually happened to that community. And it happens usually within the space of a generation, so there is rarely a stable political system that is run by minorities, and many of those that are, are heavily dependent on white patronage (which typically doesn’t last long) to preserve the political arraignment.

  2. Hugo says:

    This is a sobering report, and it really drives home the point (or rather, Jack, you drive home the point well) that privilege is about more than income — it’s about security. Thanks for this.

  3. lilacsigil says:

    I’m not American, and your healthcare system terrifies me – the idea of getting cancer or being in an accident and then bankrupting your family for treatment is just so Third World. To what degree is the healthcare system racialised? Do the black and Latino middle-class families described above have more trouble accessing healthcare, or is their lack of healthcare more of a financial, job-related or location-related issue? (yes, I realise there is a lot of overlap!)

  4. Jack says:

    lilacsigil: It’s true, the state of healthcare in the U.S. is terrifying. I wouldn’t describe it as “Third World,” because the countries that are designated as third world usually don’t have the kind of national resources that could sustain universal health care, whereas the United States has those resources and simply diverts them elsewhere, e.g. war and corporate subsidies.

    As for middle-class Black and Latino more limited access to healthcare: I’m not really clear on the reasons for the limitations specifically for the middle class. I can refer to my own family’s example again: my dad managed to get us into the middle class by being self-employed. I don’t think we would’ve been able to achieve what we did otherwise. But health insurance for the self-employed is really, really expensive, and he shunted it aside, figuring (or maybe hoping) that the savings would outweigh the risk. We’re just lucky that my mom was working a full-time job with health insurance when he got sick. Besides the self-employed, lots of folks with part- and full-time jobs are noticing their health insurance get cut drastically, sometimes even completely It’s getting more and more common for employers to cut down on benefits offered to part-timers, cut down on the quality of existing health care packages (therefore passing on more of the cost to employees in the form of co-pays and deductibles), and even firing people before they reach the six month point or whatever point they have to reach in order to qualify for insurance. Maybe those things are affecting Latinos and Blacks disproportionately.

  5. tanglad says:

    Lots of rich insights in this post, Jack, thank you for this. Your words also make me think about Asian Americans, who are supposed to be doing okay, until you disaggregate the data and find that some groups (for ex, Hmong, Cambodians, Laotians) have much more in common with Latinos and African Americans in terms of income and access to education and healthcare. It’s frightening how tenuous the hold people of color have on the security of being middle class.

  6. lilacsigil says:

    Thanks for that clarification, Jack – I shouldn’t say that the healthcare itself is Third World, but that the *access* to healthcare is Third World, dependent entirely on your ability to pay, whether that is cash-in-hand, connections, or via your job. The point about the self-employed being without insurance is a very important one for people (especially immigrants) building their family wealth and a future for themselves and their children. I work in a small business and I know how hard self-employed people work and the risks they face – the risk of an accident or illness in the family wiping out everything is a terrible added burden on everyone.

  7. La Lubu says:

    (((Jack)))

    I’ve always maintained that the difference between “working class” and “middle class” isn’t the size of the paycheck, but the size of the safety net. If your only form of security is your paycheck—well hell, welcome to the working class! And I say this even for people with college educations, because in the economically depressed Rust Belt, a college education is no guarantee of a decent job.

    A book I recommend (frequently) to smug, self-righteous people who wonder why the wealth gap still exists is “The Hidden Cost of Being African American” by Thomas Shapiro. Very telling were the comparative narratives in the book. There was a white couple in south St. Louis (translation: white flight enclave) who went on and one about how they “busted their ass” to have what they have, the car, the nice home, the neighborhood with the good school, etc. They used that particular turn of phrase quite a bit, “bust their ass”. Yet, it became clear that with all their ass-busting, the people doing the heavy financial lifting in that household were both sets of grandparents. How? Well, first in the form of fully funding their kids’ college educations—no crushing student debt to pay off. Also, giving them the down payment for their home. Also, fully funding the private school educations for all of this couple’s children. Also, extracurriculars for the grandkiddos. Buying clothes for the grandkids, hefty cash gifts for the parents, etc. So while this couple felt that because they worked full-time, they “earned” everything they had, in reality without the financial assistance of their own parents, their financial picture would have been marginally middle-class. Just like their African-American counterparts in the Vandeventer neighborhood (translation: “transitional” neighborhood—gentrifying, but white folks still don’t want to live there).

    That couple was college-educated, full-time professional workers too, but their only assets were the two paychecks they were bringing in. They both had significant student loans to pay off, had to scramble for years to come up with the down payment for the modest home they bought (and were not at a point yet where they had any significant equity in it)—there were no vacations or private school for that family. Unsurprisingly, that couple felt really fortunate to have what they did, as other members of their extended family were not so fortunate. The white couple above was defensive and had a sense of entitlement (don’t take my word for it; read the book!).

    (Shapiro asserts in the book that the wealth gap is the result of social policy—the disparate impact of treating wealth differently from income, and the cumulative, generational effects of institutional racism. Y’know, like the GI Bill and VA housing loans were “affirmative action for white people” back in the day.)

    Some people just have no idea how much work it takes, how many years it takes, to come up with even a marginal safety net. Decades of savings can be gone in an instant with a change in health or a job loss. I spent most of 2005 unemployed, and it has taken me three years of frugal living to build up some savings again. I’m in my forties, and I think about this nominal middle-incomeness quite a bit. How long will my health hold out to the point I’m employable? My mother was first diagnosed with cancer at my age. I try not to think about it, but I do. I try not to think about it, because there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it at this point; my daughter isn’t old enough for me to take on a second job yet. That’s my only game plan right now—when my daughter gets old enough to watch herself in the evenings, take on a full-time second job to save up more money for retirement (if I’m lucky) or medical expenses/job loss (if I’m not).

    Jack, you (for-damn-sure) are not alone.

  8. Riva says:

    Awesome post. Safety nets are wonderful, often taken for granted things, and it’s frustrating to try and explain things like how both sets of grandparents can contribute to a safety net to someone who has never thought about it before. Then it’s victim blaming time when something goes wrong. Duh, if they worked harder, well, nothing bad would have happened! Because bad things only happen to people that deserve them (i.e. because they were born the wrong color. What nerve!), right??

  9. Jack says:

    @tanglad – Yeah, what you mention is yet another problem with grouping together disparate communities under large umbrella terms (like Asian-American but also Latino and Black themselves); it doesn’t account for the differences in the experiences of the smaller communities under the umbrellas.

    @La Lubu – Thanks for the solidarity. God, a safety net… I feel like I’ve finally reached a point where I realize how important one is, but getting it? I’m at a loss. Seems like a very slow, very steep climb – and that’s even given my relatively abundant resources. That book sounds interesting, I should check it out.

    @Riva: Ah yes, the convenience of colorblindness when pretending or insisting that everyone’s on a level playing field. Ugh.

  10. KaeLyn says:

    Thanks for making the link between the disappearing middle class and race, Jack. Too often, when we talk about race and class, we only talk about the white middle class bougies and the racially diverse poor. We don’t often confront the reality of the non-white middle class, the uphill task for people of color to truly enter the middle class, and the disproportionate affect that racism and a slipping economy has on families of color regardless of income-brackets. Thanks for sharing you personal story, too. I was adopted into a white family in rural America (I’m Korean-American) and grew up middle-class. I struggle with and think about my class privilege often, as well as the strange dichotomy of being Korean-raised-as-white and that guilt is hard to talk about, still. Don’t feel bad about working in non-profits. You are working hard to ensure that the world is just a little bit better for everyone the next time around.

  11. Arnold Layne says:

    I would say that families who do not “have the combination of assets, education, sufficient income, and health insurance to ensure middle-class financial security” were not middle-class in the first place. I like La Lubu’s distinction between working class and middle class.

  12. shah8 says:

    Speaking of all this safety net stuff, I feel that I’m obliged to link to this book again…
    http://www.amazon.com/When-Affirmative-Action-White-Twentieth-Century/dp/0393328511/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1217528546&sr=1-1

    Safety nets are for white people. Laws that affirms rights are for white men. Laws that deny rights are for everyone else.

    Safety nets are primarily dependent on one thing: cash forming assets. That means land, for the most part. Especially land that has woods on them, or oil & mineral rights beneath them. Land that can produce real cash crops like tobacco or wine is also pretty good. Land with an apartment building is okay. Now, having said all that, I leave it to you to figure out just how many minority families have such assets. Then figure out how many minority families ONCE had such assets. By tradition in the US and in many other Western countries, minorities are NOT allowed to have such assets. If they do, like Indian tribes with casinos, they are typically highly resented by many for having such, and the only reason they still have them is because it suits the corporations to have casinos on Indian lands.

    A safety net is having real assets that you can allow a bank to collateralize (without reasonable fear of predatory lending), in order to get loans that help you start a business, make further improvements, get health care, college for your kids, the list goes on and on. Land or other assets that generates a CASH surplus (as in, not bubbled up asset values) are indespensible in creating a genuine safety net.

    Lastly, I think I oppose La Lubu‘s sentiment about what is and what isn’t middle class. Not because what she says isn’t true on a level, but because it’s only a snapshot. What is actually wrong is that things don’t get better as the generations roll over. The real meaning of middle class is that the cops work for you, instead of against you. The lawyers work for you instead of against you. The banks work for you, instead of against you. The LAW works for you, instead of against you.

    In other words, being middle class is ultimately reserved for white people.

    It’s failing now *largely because of white supremacy*. Most of the privileges when you measure it, are extraordinarily expensive. Everything from all of the elements that supports suburbian life, the low density housing, the cars, the schools…to all of the elements that attempts to see that nondeserving people don’t get the same, like the city infrastructure, the hypocrisy and corruption that prevents real reforms (one way or another, most serious reforms are about rebalancing white privilege towards general citizenship), the jails that encourages society to waste people, the wars that are necessary to support the right class…

  13. Kathy says:

    I would never compare myself to Black or Latino middle-class families suffering economic regression, as I never suffered the structural racism they had and have to face in our most excellent country, in addition to the common struggles to attain anything close to being “middle class” in America (especially now – with weak unions, loss of well-paying industry jobs, skyrocketing costs of, well, everything), but I think you will see this happening to a lot of white people like myself – daughter of a single mother on welfare, all of whose relatives were equally struggling or slightly better off, but who still managed to eventually buy her own home ($13,000 – I kid you not), and send me to college without crushing debt on my part (in large part with the help of my late father’s GI bill benefits and some social security payments because I was considered an “orphan”). But the fact is she has no assets other than that little house to pass on. And I find myself not able to even dream of ever owning a home (I am single), have just lost my job, working as a grossly underpaid consultant and freelancer while looking for full-time work in a very tight market, but just keep pinching myself that at least I have money (savings rapidly dwindling, though) in the bank (although no health insurance – could not afford the monthly $400 COBRA – this has to be one of the worst scams perpetrated by our health “care” system), and praying something will come up soon, but probably at a far lower salary (I am middle-aged, too – this does not help in the job search, for the most part). My point is that this is happening all over, although far more acute for the families examined in this report.

    I truly believed we are all screwed, and those that think it won’t happen to them, or they yawn as long as it they believe it only affects (insert your favorite racia/ethnicl slur here), or believe that when enough WHITE people suffer, the pols will finally do something, are sorely mistaken. This is yet one more example of how the racist chickens are coming home to roost for all of us, and we will pay dearly (and I think we already are, but too many people have their heads up their racist/bigoted asses and fear blacks, immigrants, gays, Muslims, etc. far more than they fear for the own welfare of their families) for dismissing, ignoring and blaming the “Other” for the structural racism (and classism) in this country.

  14. Cecelia says:

    Again, I find that Native American peoples are left out of these topics completely about the middle class. Mainly because Native Americans aren’t really seen in the general society (like a Metropolitan region) nor are they even reported on in the general news. Its like we have vanished and the general mainstream society perpetuates this vanishing. Additionally, not many Native Americans fall into the middle class, it is the very few. Instead they fall into some of the “economically” poorest of the people in this nation. There is a reason I quote one word in the previous sentence because I believe poor should not classify the whole person or population. Being “economically” poor is often created by the systematic effects, because of being a certain race or sex. For me I feel very wealthy because of my connection to the land, family, and my spirituality.

    I know most new stories are about the Black’s and Latino’s because that constitutes a larger part of society. But the more I live my life as an Ojibway woman I am tired. I am very tired of hearing about what is going on in this country with no mention of Native issues. I don’t want to mention my current economic situation but I have had a difficult time even having a Master’s degree.

    I am writing this to open your mind and raise your awareness. Take a look at billboards and advertisements, who is on them? Who is on thew news and on magazines? I want to open up a positive and constructive dialog about this. Because it hurts me so much. It hurts me that I am unseen for the most part of so many levels. Not just this physical body but my spirit as someone who is intimately connected to the heart of the Earth.

    Inawendiwin (peace)

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