If you’re black and work for the federal government, you were among a small, but very anxious, crowd of election night viewers who watched the results stream in with all the intensity of a football fan who had just bet his house on a bad playoff game. As any chance at an Electoral College victory vanished for Hillary Clinton, disbelief and the bottomless horror of what lurks around the corner quickly set in.
Less than two weeks after the four political horsemen rode in, your greatest fears were confirmed: President-elect Donald Trump, along with gloating congressional Republicans, wasted little time in announcing ambitious plans to further downsize the federal government.
For black folks—particularly black middle-class families that have historically (despite segregation and institutional hostility) relied on public sector jobs as a solid form of professional growth and upward mobility—this latest development might well be viewed as the end of their economic world as they know it. (See the Center for American Progress’ Farah Ahmad's observations about that.)
We did see this coming. Congressional Republicans in recent years have been escalating longtime efforts to scale back the role, size and impact of the federal government, or what they’ve mordantly drilled into the public brain as “federal government overreach.”
White voters ate that up in droves this year as 2016 became the defining moment for that war. Ironically, only two (and a half, when counting the Maine split) states out of the 20 most dependent on federal funding were not Donald Trump Electoral College pickups. From battle cries for Affordable Care Act repeal to forcing government shutdowns that, politically, never backfired, Republicans spent an entire two terms of the Obama White House railing against the exaggerated “evils” of federal encroachment.
Now enter corporatist Donald Trump, with plans for a full-blown dismantling of everything near and dear to civil servants: reduced benefits and pensions; easy ways to get folks fired; mass federal-hiring freezes; eliminating unions in the agencies; and—the biggest of them all—the fall of the grade-based automatic pay raise.
Bad enough that black federal workers have a hard-enough time facing high levels of racial discrimination and being passed over for promotion (1 in 4 of all federal discrimination complaints are filed by black employees, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). But with black Americans constituting nearly 20 percent of the overall federal workforce (a proportion larger than their population size of 13 percent), slicing up the federal government is sure to have a negatively disproportionate impact on them—and, in a bigger way, thriving black middle-class communities in metropolitan centers like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, which are major hubs of federal agency and contractor commerce.
It won’t just be black federal employees, either: Black professionals and entrepreneurs with small to midsize businesses relying on federal budgets stand to lose a lot, too.
That animus toward federal involvement in, pretty much, anything seems to conveniently fall on racial fault lines. Old-school Confederate sympathizer and former conservative talk show flamethrower Pat Buchanan nastily took a swipe at black federal workers in a 2011 blog titled, “Obama’s Race-Based Spoils System,” in which he accused the president of “impos[ing] affirmative action on the civil service in its senior levels.” He was just setting up the narrative.
It’s not all paradise for black workers, as Buchanan wrongly suggests. Black federal workers struggle for stability and advancement against the odds of racist norms. And when events like government shutdowns, hiring freezes or massive attrition take place, it’s cash-strapped, black public sector workers (compared with their comfortable white peers) who find themselves without a paycheck and under greater pressure to survive.
When compared with employment in a private sector where discriminatory odds are still stacked heavily against black workers, college graduates and potential hires, government jobs are not only “the good jobs” but are widely viewed within the African-American community as the best jobs. They are a relative escape from cruel private sector environments with much fewer protections.
As the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley shows (pdf), blacks are 30 percent “more likely” to join the local, state and federal public sector workforce, translating into more than 20 percent of “all black workers [being] public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of nonblack workers.”
The Economic Policy Institute also notes that blacks represented 16 percent of the state and local workforce in 1997, a share that dramatically dipped during the recession to just 12 percent by 2011 (troubling when blacks accounted for a low 10.3 percent of the private sector workforce share at that time).
Government downsizing wreaks unspeakable socioeconomic havoc on black communities that are already distressed. The last shutdown resulted in up to $24 billion worth of national economic loss and 250,000 jobs cut, the effects of which were most pronounced among black families, including government contractors and other private businesses reliant on federal funds.
As CAP’s Ahmad points out, the 2013 shutdown may have resulted in the furloughs of 150,000 black federal workers. The effects are particularly acute in black middle-class communities with large pockets of federal workers, such as the D.C.-Baltimore Capitol Corridor, since middle-class blacks—as shown by Brookings’ Richard Reeves—do not have the same financial cushion as middle-class whites. In fact, the Urban Institute’s Steven Brown shows that they “still lag behind.”
Local economies feel the impact. The five non-Washington, D.C.-area states with the largest black federal civilian workforce populations are also home to some of the other largest concentrations of black communities in the United States: Texas, Georgia, California, Florida and Alabama.
States with large black federal workforces are also states with high rates of black poverty, from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area to the five states mentioned above, as digging into Kaiser Family Foundation data details. Maryland, home to black-federal-worker-heavy Prince George’s County, has a black poverty rate of 14 percent; Texas is at 23 percent.
Black public-sector workers have already sustained heavy hits because of massive cuts in state, local and county government budgets that were vulnerable to recession, as University of Washington sociologist Jessica Laird discovered.
Using recession and fiscal tightening as an excuse, public sector executives and managers are systematically removing the comfort of public sector employment for black folks as the “great social equalizer” that it’s been: As Laird finds, “black public-sector workers are more likely to become unemployed than their white or Hispanic counterparts.”
A combination of pain felt by federal workers, the lack of revenue from government coffers flowing into the economy and the shortsighted slow death of crucial social programs—particularly during an economic recovery period leaving many out—will be widely felt. But black families and the communities they live in will certainly feel it the most.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.