(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.
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.
Right now, restaurant-industry workers rely on food stamps at twice the rate of other American workers to just feed themselves and their families, according to Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
"It's an incredible irony that the people who put food on our tables … can't afford to put food on their own family's tables … " Jayaraman told the PBS show Moyers & Company earlier this year. "They can't afford to eat."
Organizers with Jobs With Justice argue that boosting the minimum wage will allow larger shares of Americans to support their families without help from the social safety net. SEIU officials also insist that an increase in the minimum wage would eventually put upward pressure on all workers' wages and that corporations have, for far too long, wrestled huge profits out of their businesses by underpaying their workers.
The union's critics say that the fast-food-worker campaign organized by Jobs With Justice and other local groups is really just a cynical attempt to boost union membership at a time when the share of American workers paying union dues has reached an all-time low.
Blacks and Unions
For black America, union membership remains one of the most assured paths to living wages equal or nearly equal to the pay that employers dole out to their white peers. Union members enjoy the country's smallest gender and racial pay gaps. So while union members make up a much smaller share of the workforce than they did even 20 years ago, blacks remain the most likely participants in collective bargaining agreements. Nearly 15 percent of all black people with jobs belong to a union, more than any other racial or demographic group.
But large majorities of Americans — Republicans and Democrats, men and women, black and white — all support raising the nation's legally mandated minimum wage. In a March Gallup poll, a full 71 percent of Americans said that they would vote in favor of boosting the nation's minimum wage as high as $9 an hour. And just this month, a poll released by the National Employment Law Project (a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working to boost the minimum wage) but conducted by an independent research firm found that 80 percent of Americans would support a minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour.
The fast-food industry's biggest trade group insists that wage increases would produce a lot of economic pain for workers.
"Restaurants operate on very thin profit margins," the National Restaurant Association's executive vice president, Scott DeFife, said in a press release. "Significant additional labor costs can negatively impact a restaurant's ability to hire or maintain jobs."
Back in St. Louis, Rafanan insists that both claims are just the well-rehearsed scare tactics of companies that want to hold on to gargantuan profits rather than share some of their largesse with the line workers who make their companies work.
"What they don't talk about is who is really footing the bill, making it possible for these companies to hoard profits," said Rafanan, who has spent the last week away from the cameras making sure that workers who participated in the St. Louis strike were not fired or otherwise retaliated against when they returned to work. "The rest of us, other taxpayers … [have] to cover the cost of the things that these hardworking people cannot provide for themselves because they are so poorly paid."
Those costs include day care, health care, food and housing aid, he said.
"It's time that we realize that income inequality is a disease that weakens us all," he said.
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.