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Black middle class economically vulnerable

By Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Generations of Valerie Magee’s family, from her grandparents to her children, have deepened their roots in the black middle class, finding a pathway to prosperity through college education and the support of family members.

But as Magee, 56, watches college tuition skyrocket and wealth and incomes plummet, she worries that college might be moving beyond her young grandchildren’s grasp.

So Magee, a divorced nurse administrator, recently sold her pricey south suburban Matteson home, hoping that will free her up financially to better assist her children if they need help with a future mortgage payment or tuition.

“Every generation wants the next to move up at least one more rung on the ladder, not backward — never backward,” she said. “My daughter and son-in-law are doing OK for now, but who knows what will happen tomorrow?”

For months, the presidential candidates have been trying to court the middle class, extending offers of tax cuts, lower gas prices and better schools. The message: America does well when the middle class does well. The corollary: We feel your pain.

But much less attention has been given to the black middle class, which since the recession and slow recovery has suffered massive decreases in wealth and high rates of home foreclosures. Blacks overall are experiencing a 13.4 percent unemployment rate, much higher than the national rate of 7.8 percent.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project recently released a report projecting that 68 percent of African-Americans reared in the middle of the wealth ladder will not do as well as the previous generation.

In August, the National Urban League’s State of Black America 2012 report found that nearly all the economic gains that the black middle class made during the last 30 years have been wiped out by the economic downturn.

“This is a very dire situation,” said Valerie Rawlston Wilson, an economist with the National Urban League Policy Institute. “Even for blacks who have college degrees, we’ve seen a doubling of their unemployment (rate) between 2007 and 2010.”

Roxie King, 63, who lost her job as a cardio echo ultrasound technician in 2010, has been fighting to keep her Chicago home.

“You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul and you’re trying to keep the lights on and it’s a real struggle,” King said. “You go through whatever little nest egg you had, and all you have left is frustration.”

That nest egg is central to the discussion about the middle class. It’s often key to how well a family rebounds after a financial catastrophe, or whether a kid makes it to college.

From 2005 to 2009, the average black household’s wealth fell by more than half, to $5,677, while white household wealth fell 16 percent to $113,149, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2009, 24 percent of black households had no major assets other than a vehicle, compared with 6 percent of their white counterparts.

“For every $20 whites have in wealth, blacks have just $1,” said Paul Taylor, director of Pew’s Social and Demographic Trends project. “And in many cases, households get a boost because they inherit wealth from parents and grandparents. Blacks for most of history haven’t been able to accumulate that type of wealth.”

Mary Pattillo, a Northwestern University professor and expert on the black middle class, said this segment of the population is so fragile because it’s disproportionately lower middle class.

“It includes workers, such as the administrative assistant and the lower-level salesperson, who make about $30,000 a year and whose job doesn’t require a college degree,” Pattillo said.

“When you’re one paycheck away from not being able to pay the mortgage or college tuition, it’s hard to accumulate wealth.”

Saving money for the future is especially difficult for blacks living paycheck to paycheck. The median annual household income for blacks declined by 11.1 percent (from $36,567 to $32,498) from June 2009 to June 2012, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Sentier Research. The decline for whites was 5.2 percent and for Hispanics 4.1 percent. Both groups started with higher incomes than blacks.

“A generation of wealth and assets are evaporating, and the presidential candidates aren’t making a peep about it,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 40, a doctoral candidate in African-American studies at Northwestern. “We’re talking about historic changes in manufacturing, and these are systemic changes in the economy and in the midst of this, people are being left behind.”

Taylor said that although both of her parents had doctorates, they divorced when she was young, and her family’s grip on the middle class was sometimes tenuous.

“I grew up with a single black woman who had two kids,” she said. “At various points, we had a middle-class existence. But my family struggled during the economic recession of the 1980s and my mother had to file for bankruptcy and we had to sell our house.

“I didn’t grow up under harsh conditions, but it also wasn’t a life of privilege.”

Historically, many blacks have made it into the middle class via public-sector and union jobs. But since 2008, the public sector has shed about 600,000 positions.

The 2009 recovery is the first in nearly 40 years that has not been accompanied by an expansion in the public sector. That’s due in part to the property tax base of many local governments being whittled away by the home foreclosure crisis.

After the housing bubble burst in 2006, everyone was affected, but blacks were hit particularly hard. About one-quarter of blacks have lost their homes or are seriously delinquent and at risk of losing them, according to the North Carolina-based Center for Responsible Lending.

The center also found that African-American borrowers with good credit scores received subprime, predatory loans associated with high foreclosure rates three times as often as white borrowers with comparable credit scores.

Duane Jackson, 35, is the son-in-law of Valerie Magee. He’s a car salesman, and his wife, Randi, 31, is a compensation benefits specialist. They have three children, ages 7, 5 and 4, who attend private school. He said being middle class has as much to do with a person’s aspirations as his income.

“We’re working on saving up for a home,” said Jackson, who lives in suburban Park Forest. “We’re fortunate that my parents have started a money market fund for each of the grandkids for college, or there wouldn’t be anything just yet.”

Like his wife, Jackson grew up middle class. He said he doesn’t want his children to be saddled with college debt because it hurts their upward mobility.

“They’re supposed to start off with a clean slate,” he said. “We want for our kids what our parents wanted for us — something better.”

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