No Recovery for the Black Worker

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

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

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As large as the wage and wealth gaps have become between America’s rich and poor, the gulf between the economic well-being of the average white and average black household is even more stark, said Algernon Austin, a labor sociologist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

In 2010, the most recent year for which detailed census income data is available, the median white-family income reached $65,138, a figure that has declined since the recession. But the median black-family income amounted to just $37,915.

When it comes to household wealth — the cash, cars, property, homes and other assets a family owns after accounting for debt — the gap is even larger. The median white household can claim $97,000 in wealth, while for black families, that same figure sits at just $4,890. 

Even before the Great Recession began in December 2007, median black-family income and wealth sat well below that of white Americans. The recession made matters worse for most Americans. Now, some three years after the recession’s official end, the country’s racial income and wealth gaps remain large and are expected to expand further. In fact, white-family losses during the recession have been the only thing preventing an even larger economic fissure from forming.

“When people see those numbers or hear those figures, there is just sadly a large share of the population that will be inclined to explain that away with their notions about black work and spending habits,” said Austin. “But the research doesn’t support any of that. The issue is really that black Americans, regardless of education level, are more likely to be unemployed and, when they do work, to do so at low-wage jobs. That’s the truth.”

Fast-Food Workers’ Struggle 

Fast food is just one of those industries. But a close look at what’s happening inside the nation’s burger and taco joints highlights just how hard it’s become for many working black Americans to support their families.

In 2012, while black Americans made up just 10 percent of the nation’s workforce and about 14 percent of its total population, in the fast-food industry 18 percent of its workers were black, according to federal data. Disparities also exist for Latino and Asian workers.

And in the industry, it’s not easy to survive. Across the country, about 84 percent of the nation’s fast-food workers also earn between $7.25, the federal legally mandated minimum wage, and $10.09 per hour.  

The one-day strikes that Rafanan and others helped organize last month were designed to protest the almost universally low wages paid by the nation’s rapidly growing fast-food industry. They also wanted to draw attention to the way that corporate wage choices require cities, states and their taxpayers to help provide food, health care and other basic needs to fast-food workers and contribute to income inequality.