Black Christmas: What the Budget Deal Means for African Americans

Edward Wyckoff Williams
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan arrive for a press conference to announce the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 10, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Republicans and Democrats in Congress are patting their backs as if simply doing their job deserves a gratuity.

Their budget deal, passed by the Senate on Wednesday, has now gone to the president’s desk for signing. But though this moment may represent a temporary cease-fire of Republican obstructionism, the Ayn Rand-ian principles that have guided the modern-day Grand Old Party remain at the center of this so-called compromise. The deal, you see, does nothing to assist America’s poor and those still coping with the consequences of the 2007-2008 Great Recession.


Many low-income workers, the elderly, veterans, African Americans and other minorities in particular will continue to lack resources and be in danger of losing more. The fact that these groups make up a significant portion of President Barack Obama’s base of supporters is not a point lost on Republican lawmakers—indeed, the deal was likely designed for that inevitable outcome. This budget deal—despite the media’s inclination to declare it a success—is a case of the devil being in the details.

For his part, Obama acknowledged Republicans’ willingness to move away from “shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making,” while also highlighting the needs of America’s most vulnerable. “Congress,” he said, “should pass an extension of unemployment insurance so more than a million Americans don’t lose a vital lifeline as they fight to find a job.”

On Dec. 28, just three days after Christmas, 1.3 million Americans are poised to lose employment insurance. The budget compromise fails to do anything about it, but the problem is even bigger than it seems.

According to research by the National Employment Law Project (pdf), 850,000 more Americans will lose benefits in the first quarter of 2014; and by year’s end, the total will be more than 3.6 million. There are 4 million individuals who have been out of work 27 weeks or more, and African Americans represent close to 1 million of them.


And as the Washington Post’s Katrina vanden Heuvel writes, the budget “does nothing to create jobs at a time when unemployment remains our biggest economic problem.”

Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remain confident that unemployment benefits will be extended during the omnibus legislative negotiations that take place before Jan. 15, but given the GOP’s strong-arm tactics in the past, this seems overly optimistic.


The long-term unemployed are currently at 36.9 percent of the total unemployed, and more than a third live in households that are below the poverty line.

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.

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 on Facebook.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter