Black Christmas: What the Budget Deal Means for African Americans

Murray-Ryan is being hailed as a Washington win. But it’s a raw deal for government employees and the working poor.

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And they’re disproportionately black and brown.

African Americans make up 22.6 percent, and Latinos make up 19 percent, of the long-term unemployed. In addition, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the overall unemployment rate for blacks remains twice as high as that of whites—12.5 percent last month, compared with 6.3 percent.

These are crisis levels of unemployment, but members of Congress seem self-satisfied for merely having partially fixed a sequestration debacle that they created.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who worked alongside Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to hammer out the deal, said that it rolled “back sequestration’s harmful cuts to education and medical research and infrastructure investments and defense jobs for the next two years.” But the underlying truth is that the increase in defense spending is the only guarantee built into the deal. By contrast, programs like Head Start and Meals on Wheels are still laden with last year’s sequestration cuts and face an uncertain, if slightly less precarious, fate.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were divided in their vote on the budget agreement, with Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) choosing to vote no and saying, “The agreement shortchanges federal employees and turns its back on millions of unemployed Americans … I could not in good conscience vote for this budget knowing that federal employees, the backbone of a functioning government, have already contributed approximately $114 billion over 10 years to help reduce the government’s deficit, which includes a three-year pay freeze.”

Fudge’s comments underscore the little-discussed fact that African Americans not only represent a disproportionate number of the unemployed but also are more likely to be government workers—which translates into a threefold hit for many black communities: long-term unemployment, furloughs during the government shutdown and stagnated wages under sequestration.

Joel Friedman at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that the budget deal’s failure to adequately address safety-net programs will be further exacerbated because, according to his estimates, nondefense funding on social programs will need to rise by 2.1 percent in 2015 and 2016 just to keep up with inflation. But under Murray-Ryan, it rises by less than 1 percent—and meanwhile, Head Start and programs for the elderly are stretched as baby boomers retire and families grow larger.

The inconvenient truth is that Republicans won the political game this time—appearing reasonable just before Christmas, while laying the groundwork for their continued war on the poor and the working class. And as Americans watch their emergency unemployment-insurance benefits disappear, it becomes abundantly clear who really lost here and for whom a happy New Year is increasingly elusive.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.