Having the nation’s first black president in office for the past four years has done little to improve the economic lots of black Americans, who experienced greater unemployment than whites during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and a slower recovery since then.
President Obama on Wednesday spoke eloquently of his hopes to advance the fortunes for those of his own race. But his proposals to promote their welfare — through legislation providing greater income support and education for the children of blacks and other disadvantaged minorities, raising the minimum wage, and creating jobs building roads, bridges and other infrastructure — have gone nowhere in a divided Congress dominated by worries about the budget.
Moreover, programs like Head Start with proven records of helping minority children attain education and jobs are being slashed in the federal budget sequester this year. Meanwhile, many of the protections in the expanded safety net that Mr. Obama enacted in his $800 billion stimulus bill in his first months in office have expired, leaving blacks and others who haven’t been able to find jobs going backward with little on which to fall back.
“Yes, there have been examples of success within black America that would have been unimaginable a half-century ago,” said Mr. Obama, alluding to his own meteoric rise from an Illinois senator in 2004 as well as the notable achievements of a growing cadre of wealthy and influential black elites.
Still, he conceded that black unemployment, at 12.6 percent nationwide, remains nearly twice the level of white joblessness, and blacks lost more wealth as a result of foreclosures on their homes than whites did during the housing crisis, leaving them even further behind economically.
“The measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life,” the president said.
All signs are that black economic progress has stalled or gone backward in recent years, however, with little prospect for major change. Blacks made great strides in the decade after the 1963 March on Washington as Congress enacted Medicaid, welfare and other Great Society programs, prompting dramatic drops in black poverty, which fell from 42 percent in the mid-1960s to less than 20 percent during the 1990s. Hard times during the latest recession pushed the rate back up to 28 percent in 2011.
The enactment of laws in the civil rights era guaranteeing equal access to jobs and housing also helped greatly to increase incomes, living standards and homeownership rates for blacks and other minorities. The minority group had a particularly good decade in the 1990s, when black poverty not only plummeted, but black incomes grew from 52 percent to 60 percent of white incomes and black homeownership grew from 42 percent to 48 percent.
But economic progress for blacks largely stalled out in the 2000s, and it went sharply into reverse during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when all Americans experienced big drops in wealth, income and jobs. By 2008, at the height of the subprime mortgage crisis, black homeownership had dropped back to 46 percent. As defaults and foreclosures continue to take a heavy toll in black and other minority communities, it has fallen further to 43 percent today.
As in all previous periods of recession, blacks were set back further than whites during the Great Recession, with black unemployment soaring to a peak of 16.7 percent and reaching nearly 50 percent for black youths. Reflecting the historic disparities with whites, blacks also have had to struggle harder to get back to break-even since the recovery began in June 2009.
By some measures, in fact, the latest recovery has been perhaps the harshest ever on blacks. Median income for black households has dropped 10.9 percent since the recovery began, compared with a 3.6 percent fall for white households, according to Sentier Research, an economic consulting firm.
Because of this dismal record, liberals and many blacks, though they voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama in last year’s election, can be found among his biggest critics.
“Obama’s recovery is worse than the George W. Bush recession for blacks,” said Kevin Gray, author of “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama,” noting the sharp drop in black family incomes since 2009.
“Obama hasn’t done much of substance or impact to ease, let alone end, the depression in the black community. He’s been on the side of the banks and Wall Street since co-signing George Bush’s and Hank Paulsen’s TARP ‘too big to fail’ bank bailout at the expense of underwater homeowners and middle-class taxpayers,” he said.
Critics on the right are even more strident.
“While Obama can speak beautiful words about Dr. King’s legacy, the truth of the matter is that the black community has seen more regression over Obama’s presidency than at probably any time since the March on Washington,” said Kevin Martin of Project 21, a conservative black group.
“President Obama obviously benefited from the past 50 years of racial progress, but he must realize deep down in his soul that Dr. King would likely oppose many of his left-wing policies,” he said.
But Obama defenders say that many low-income blacks will be better off when Obamacare takes effect next year, enabling them to obtain insurance for the first time in some states through expanded Medicaid rolls or purchase it at low cost with federal subsidies through new health insurance exchanges.
They also point out that the president has tried to restore money to programs like Head Start and enact other initiatives that would help blacks and other minorities continue to make progress, only to be stopped cold by his Republican opponents in Congress.
“The early 1980s marked a turning point in U.S. politics. Reagan sparked a ‘me-first’ ideological revolution in Washington, D.C., and beyond,” and that remains the biggest obstacle to progress today, said Brian Miller, executive director of United for a Fair Economy, which is pushing even more radical remedies to lingering racial discrimination than Mr. Obama.
Unless the mindset in Washington changes and Republicans stop blocking progress to equalize incomes and wealth, Mr. Miller said, the country is headed for an economic disaster in a few years when blacks, Hispanics and other minorities become the majority of the population but have little wherewithal to foster growth in an economy with an aging white population in need of government support.