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Cuts to the Public Workforce Disproportionately Hit African-Americans

Mitt Romney spoke before the NAACP today, and the response was, shall we say, mixed. Vowing to repeal Obamacare in front of an African-American audience may have been a miscalculation. But Romney’s core argument to the NAACP is worth scrutinizing a bit.

He basically made the case that he would be better for African-Americans on the economy than President Obama. Here’s the argument in a nutshell:

I am running for president because I know that my policies and vision will help hundreds of millions of middle class Americans of all races, will lift people from poverty, and will help prevent people from becoming poor. My campaign is about helping the people who need help. The course the President has set has not done that – and will not do that. My course will […]

If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.

Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover – and you, in particular, are entitled to an answer.

We’ll set aside for a moment the enormous role that mass incarceration plays into the African-American unemployment rate. But let’s isolate the increases in that rate over the past couple years. As we know, the story of the economy over the past several years is a story about a dichotomy between the public sector and the private sector. Private-sector jobs have increased decently while public-sector jobs have crashed. If the public sector were in the shape it were in during, say, the Bush Administration, the unemployment rate would be a full point lower.

And it’s just a plain fact that African-Americans are more likely to hold public-sector jobs than white Americans. The Labor Center at UC-Berkeley reports:

During 2008-2010, 21.2% of all Black workers are public employees, compared with 16.3% of non-Black workers. Both before and after the onset of the Great Recession, African Americans were 30% more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector.

If 636,000 public-sector jobs have vanished during the Obama Presidency, that will simply impact the African-American community in greater numbers.

Public-sector austerity is a reasonable place to criticize this Administration, though they have been stymied in passing more legislation to fill the gaps in state budgets and avoid more layoffs. But this is actually Romney’s platform. He wants to cut the public sector even more, to balance the budget in a still-fragile economy. Today he told the NAACP that “I will reduce government spending.” The story of the economy over the last several years is that it’s an economy that looks very much like this – a stronger private sector and a weaker public sector. That necessarily means worse prospects for African-Americans. It also happens to be wrong for the economy as a whole, as we’ve seen.

Romney filled out his speech with paeans to charter schools in the inner city, a potential area of agreement with some African-American parents. But the core issue is that he supports the current dynamic that takes jobs away from African-Americans; in fact, he wants to expand it.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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