Blacks, Latinos, and the precariousness of “middle class”

Today I listened to a segment on Democracy Now! about a new report that’s out from Demos and Brandeis University on the state of the Black and Latino middle class in the United States. The study, entitled “Economic (In)Security: The Experience of the African American and Latino Middle Classes,” finds that three-out-of-four Black and four-out-of-five Latino middle-class families are economically insecure and at high risk of slipping out of the middle class. From the report, which can be downloaded as a PDF from the Demos website:

African-American and Latino families have more difficulty moving into the middle class, and families that do enter the middle class are less secure and at higher risk than the middle class as a whole. Overall, more African-American and Latino middle-class families are at risk of falling out of the middle class than are secure. This is in sharp contrast to the overall middle class, in which 31 percent are secure and 21 percent are at risk. Specifically:

  • Only 26 percent of African-American middle-class families have the combination of as- sets, education, sufficient income, and health insurance to ensure middle-class financial security. One in three (33 percent) is at high risk of falling out of the middle class.
  • Less than one in five Latino families (18 percent) is securely in the middle class. More than twice as many (41 percent) of Latino families are in danger of slipping out of the middle class.
  • African-American middle-class families are less secure and at greater risk than the middle class as a whole on four of the five indicators of security and vulnerability [named by the report as assets, education, housing, budget, and healthcare]. Latino middle-class families are less secure and at greater risk on all five indicators.

Jennifer Wheary, a senior fellow at Demos and one of the co-authors of the report, elaborated on Democracy Now!:

And what we found was when we compared the situation of white middle-class families to African Americans and Latinos, there were vast differences. You know, and what was astounding to us was really looking at—these are, you know, African American and Latino families that, by all sense and purposes, have achieved the American dream, people who, you know, have two earners, two professional earners in the household, you know, maybe are trying to own a home or do own a home, you know, very—have achieved all the aspirations that we typically go for. But even among those people, when you look at, you know, where they’re weak economically, we found that about two-in-five Latino middle-class families are in danger of falling out of the middle class. They’re so financially vulnerable, don’t have assets. Maybe somebody in the household is uninsured. And one-in-three African American middle-class families are also in danger, so vulnerable, so weak, that they’re in danger of falling out of the middle class.

I haven’t read the report yet, but when I do, I fully expect to cry. In fact, as I listened to the segment on the bus home today, I actually found myself tearing up; not only because the larger injustices behind what I was hearing, but because it hit a very personal chord.

My parents came from large, poor Puerto Rican families, my dad born in Brooklyn and my mom immigrating from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. They struggled and saved and busted their asses to get to the place they were financially by the time I came around in 1981. My dad was self-employed, running a small general contracting company with his brother; my Mom worked part-time as his office manager.

I grew up most certainly middle class, and it was a pretty sweet life. We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination either. I went to private Catholic schools from kindergarten to high school, and then my family was able to send me to one of the most expensive colleges in the country. I got some federal grants and financial aid, and they struggled to make up the considerable difference so that I wouldn’t be saddled with significant student loan debt right out of college. We rented an apartment until I was eleven, and then my dad was able to go in on the house that his newly-widowed godfather owned, so they owned the house that we all lived in together. I got to take piano lessons until I was too stubborn a teenager to practice anymore, and I even got to travel a bit. And I got to live blissfully aware of whatever financial troubles or worries my parents had; I didn’t want for anything.

My parents sold their house in Jersey and moved to Florida in 1999. George W. Bush stole the election in 2000, 9/11 happened, and the economy started tanking. Florida wasn’t a friendly place for an unknown general contractor with dark skin. Between the shitty economy, the starting from scratch, and the racism that my dad encountered when looking for work, things started to slip. And like the rest of the 41% of Latinos losing their grip on being middle class, my family didn’t have any assets besides our house; they didn’t go to college; and until my mom got a full-time job at a drugstore, neither of them had health insurance.

These days, my parents are doing all right, relatively speaking. But money is definitely a constant struggle for them. They rent an apartment just down the street from the one we lived in until I was eleven. They both work full-time, my dad still doing general contracting and my mom running what I guarantee is the most orderly and beautifully laid out cosmetics department in CVS history. My dad pays a ridiculous amount of money to fill up his truck’s gas tank multiple times a week so that he can actually get work done. Thankfully my mom gets health insurance for her and my dad through her job, because two years ago my dad was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disease akin to cancer. His treatment costs thousands upon thousands of dollars each month; every time I think about what would happen if my mom didn’t have that insurance, I nearly freak the fuck out, so I try not to think about it. My dad’s sick and his illness makes him tired and weak; my mom has bad knees and stands up all day at the job; they are 62 and 60 respectively, and retirement is no where in sight, despite all their impressive achievements, all their hard work, all their perseverance.

Sometimes I look at what they’ve gone through and continue to go through and I think I’m a bloody selfish fool for using my fancy college education to work cheap for non-profit organizations while living in the most expensive city in the country. My partner and I both stress and speculate about how we can do the work that’s important to us for the communities that are important to us and that we come from while also helping to support our families AND getting ourselves to a secure place. I look at my own debt and my utter lack of assets, I see 30 approaching, I read reports like these, and I am fucking scared.

In a way, hearing about this report and reading a bit of it is affirming. It’s affirming to see my family’s story reflected in the report, to see what my parents have gone through in light of what so many other Latino and Black families are going through. Talking about my own class and my family’s class is always really weird for me, because it’s hard to reconcile the really good, comfortable childhood I had with the struggle my parents endure now and the precarious financial situation that both they and I are in. I appreciate reading a report like this because it solidly positions us in the context of a larger trend, connects what we’re going through to larger systems of inequality and injustice. Company in difficulty is still company, I guess. And additionally, reading reports like these only reaffirms the importance of the organizations that I work for as they struggle for economic and racial justice.

But it also me sad. So sad for everyone who teeters on the brink of financial disaster, for my parents and all the other sixty-somethings who may never get that ultimate reward of the American dream – to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. So sad, and so angry. So very fucking angry.

Cross-posted at Feministe

2 Responses to “Blacks, Latinos, and the precariousness of “middle class””

  1. 1 Frank Fortune

    I think your parents experience speaks to the fraud of the current American dream. People have wrongly been told to consume, not save. In fact, people should be building up a wealth portfolio, carry no debts, and run their lives like a business (building value over time so that they are more than the parts of their lives). The whole charity, non-profit model is also a fraud. It treats its workers poorly and pays them badly. It creates and fosters a dependency culture with its ‘clients’, when what they should be telling people is save, invest and get educated. Black and Latino families are vulnerable because they have jumped into the middle class as a result of quota hiring programmes. That means they have not done the other stuff to learn how to stay there. This includes all the other hidden things that don’t turn up in economic surveys. There are ways people behave and associate that are the habits of the middle class. And these habits are principly why they stay middle class. Learn the habits and you will stay there. Never work for free, never volunteer, always make sure a job pays benefits, always walk away or move if there isn’t good work in your area. Obama’s speeches may sound good, but they don’t put food on the table. Don’t be swayed by empty rhetoric and high-minded idealism. Ordinary people cannot afford the luxury of idealism. When things get hard, when the bills need to be paid, you will never, ever see the idealists and liberals: they stay hidden when the shit hits the fan. America is falling apart because too many people drank the Kool Aid.

  2. 2 Allyss

    take this from the article, build assests!
    business and real estate are the most popular ones, and these days, you can get it mighty cheap after the housing bubble.
    This makes you mad now, guess how bad its gonna get in the next 4-6 years when the boomers start to retire and then find themselves still needing a job!

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