No Recovery for the Black Worker

Despite better times for some, the growing income inequality has been particularly hard on black America.

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Fast-food workers demonstrating outside a Wendy's in New York (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- On a sweltering day in late July, the Rev. Martin Rafanan, a St. Louis, Mo., labor organizer, led hundreds of service-industry workers, most of them African American, on a legally protected 24-hour strike.

The strike was not only a St. Louis first but also part of a precedent-setting effort across four Midwestern cities. Their demands were simple: an across-the-board pay increase to $15 an hour, a figure that would nearly double the national average fast-food hourly wage of just $9 and allow most workers to cover the costs of their own food, shelter and other basic needs.

The walk-off was an earnest effort to help raise the wages of thousands of service-industry workers in Kansas City, Mo.; St. Louis; Detroit; and Flint, Mich.

But the large number of African Americans on picket lines illustrates a sobering reality about the country's economy before the recession and what remains now that the nation has ostensibly recovered. Black Americans disproportionately work in jobs that barely help them make ends meet, a phenomenon that continues to exacerbate and expand income inequality between whites and blacks, even as the overall economy continues to improve.

"We've had some people kind of balk when they hear that $15 figure," said Rafanan of their demands for wage increases. The pastor is a community organizer for Jobs With Justice, a group founded and financed largely by the Service Employees International Union.

But "that's what a person who works full time needs to earn just to survive and provide for their own most basic needs," he said. "We're not talking about luxuries here. We're talking about survival."

The large and growing share of American workers earning very little has expanded so much in the last decade that even President Barack Obama told the New York Times in late July that income inequality is "fraying the social fabric" and making it difficult for ordinary Americans to see their country as one where economic progress and opportunity remain real possibilities. But what Obama and even the SEIU, the union helping to organize fast-food workers, have not said explicitly is that the growing income inequality has been particularly hard on black America.

"Income inequality" is the term that economists use to describe the way that large shares of wealth and income are going into the pockets of a smaller and smaller share of the American public. In short, CEO salaries and the savings that the wealthy already have in the bank are climbing, while during the last decade most workers have watched their own wages stagnate or fall.  

A Widening Gap 

By no means is that fresh news. Between 1979 and 2007, income generated inside the United States has been overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 1 percent of the nation's residents, according to a 2011 study released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The study's authors found that the top 1 percent saw their incomes climb 275 percent during this period. Middle-income families saw their incomes increase 40 percent, and low-income workers experienced paltry 20 percent gains for the lowest-income families during this same period of time.

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