In “The Unfinished March,” the first in a series reports from the Economic Policy Institute, economist Algernon Austin outlines the “unfinished business” of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Progress on civil rights, such as voting rights and laws against discrimination in employment, have fulfilled much of the March’s “Freedom” agenda. But its goal to transform the economic lives of African-Americans remains largely unachieved.
Thus, 50 years later, the work the March was intended to begin remains unfinished. The failure to carry out the economic agenda of the 1963 March now even threatens the success of its civil rights agenda. The economic goals of the 1963 March on Washington are more relevant now than ever. We can finish the March, by focusing on two of its most important economic demands: jobs and livable wages.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, but Austin points out that many other speeches were given on the that day, calling for jobs and living wages as well as civil rights. One speech, by Negro American Labor Council president A. Philip Randolph, distills the organizers’ understanding that jobs and living wages were essential and inextricable from their civil rights agenda.
The key organizers of the march, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, understood that improving the socioeconomic position of African Americans required an end to both race- and class-based injustices in America (Anderson 1997, 239-240; March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963b, 3). In his speech at the march, Randolph, president of the Negro American Labor Council, stated:
We have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?
For Randolph and other marchers, expanding rights without significantly expanding economic opportunity would still leave African Americans economically disadvantaged.
As I wrote in April, the current state of Black America illustrates both the progress made since the 1963 March on Washington, and underscores how far there is to go. Gains in education and increased standards of living are overshadowed by disparity and decline in other areas:
- The number of African Americans living in poverty has declined 23 percent since 1963, and 22 percent fewer African-American children live in poverty. But disproportionate poverty persists. African Americans make up 13.8 percent of the population, but account for 27 percent of Americans living in poverty.
- More African Americans complete high school and attend college. Only 15 percent of African-American adults lack a high school diploma, compared with 75 percent in 1963. There are now more than three times more African-Americans enrolled in college than in 1963, and for every college graduate in 1963 there are now five. But employment and income gaps persist. The unemployment gap between African-Americans and white Americans has only closed 6 percent since 1963, regardless of education. The income gap has closed just 7 percent in 50 years.
- More African Americans are homeowners. The number of homeowners has increased 14 percent since 1963. But homeownership has not translated into wealth. Thus the wealth gap persists. During the recession, African-American families’ net wealth dropped 27.1 percent.
Finishing the March on Washington, by fulfilling its economic agenda on jobs and living wages would go a long way towards closing these gaps.
Jobs and Livable Wages
One of the key demands of the 1963 March on Washington was a major public works program to provide jobs, with the goal of full employment. Fifty years later, this demand has only gained urgency, but remains unfulfilled. Austin writes that since the 1960s African-American’s unemployment rate has remained two to two-and-a-half times the unemployment rate for white Americans. In 1963 the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks. That disparity has remained largely unchanged for more than 40 years.
There are a number of reasons for the employment gap between African Americans and white Americans. African Americans have suffered an epidemic of unemployment in this recession, as a result of preexisting economic conditions that went untreated for decades. Barbara Ehrenreich writes that a legacy of discrimination in hiring and lending made African Americans less likely to be cushioned against the economic downturn. In 2008, just before the country plunged into recession, the average African-American family had only one dime in savings for every dollar the typical white family had.
The disappearance of “good jobs” with livable wages is another factor in the persistence of high unemployment among African Americans – particularly African-American men. Since 1979, America’s economy has lost nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs, more than 3.5 million of which were lost between 2000 and 2006. The loss of those jobs was driven by a decline in unionization, industry deregulation, and increased outsourcing of state and government services.
African-American men were hit particularly hard, because they were overrepresented in these jobs. In many case, these jobs were the best that black men could get, especially if they lacked a college education. The wages and benefits in these jobs provided many with an opportunity to rise into the middle class. In many cases those wages and benefits were fought for and won by unions. The decline of union membership that accompanied the loss of these jobs was a double whammy to the economic dreams of black working men and their families, who lost the benefits of union membership in the bargain.
As the recession continues, conservative economic policies have only made things worse for African Americans in terms of employment. Deficit- and sequester-driven spending cuts have led to layoff and job losses in the public sector. African Americans are disproportionately represented in the public sector workforce, and thus disproportionately impacted by public sector cuts.
According to economists and government data, about one in five African Americans work in the public sector, and are one-third more likely than whites to be employed in the public sector. With manufacturing jobs in decline, public sector jobs became an alternate path to the middle class for many African-Americans. Now the Black middle class is threatened by the loss of those jobs, too.
Facing a dearth of good jobs with livable wages, many African Americans who couldn’t find public sector employment turned to low-wage jobs in food service and retail. Low-wage jobs come with a economic high price, in the form of a “lost decade” of economic growth. There’s a high personal price to be paid as well. The working poor who fill these jobs are disproportionately African American or Latino.
In the spirit of the March Washington, low-wage workers in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Washington and Detroit, have taken to the streets to demand livable wages, better working conditions, and the right to unionize. Strikers call for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which would be a livable wage in some cases.
The organizers of the March on Washington called for a public works program to provide jobs, and ultimately achieve full employment. While there may not be much in the way of legislation aimed at full employment, we already have jobs bills that cold get us much closer to full employment. The president’s American Jobs Act is one example of policy that would protect the jobs of many African-Americans who’ve managed to hold on them, and put more unemployed African-Americans to work.
What’s missing, perhaps, is legislation that specifically addressees African-American unemployment and the underlying issues.
Sure, an overall policy aimed lowering the overall unemployment rate would have the effect of lowering the African-American unemployment rate. However, the gaps in employment, income and poverty will persist until policy is designed and implemented to address them, in the context of the historical realities that produced and perpetuated them.
That kind of political solution might be a long way off. But in 1963 a lot of people also thought the civil rights victories that followed it were a long way off. We can finish the march, but the first two steps into the future must be jobs and livable wages.