"Them that's got shall get. Them that's not shall lose," as the Billie Holiday song goes. "Yes, the strong gets more while the weak ones fade. Empty pockets don't ever make the grade."
It is a tale of two cities in early twenty-first century America. Wall Street is enjoying hefty bonuses and corporate America is awash in cash. Yet, all you can hear, whether inside the Beltway or around state houses is talk of austerity, the new buzzword that's all the rage. Conservative politicians in Congress and in statehouses around the country rode a wave of Tea Party pseudo populism, funded by Republican philanthropy, corporate lobbyists and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Austerity is certainly not for the wealthy -- those who paid for the election and have already been awarded their extended and possibly permanent tax breaks under the Obama-GOP "compromise" -- but rather for the folks of meager means. And so, those who are already struggling are told to tighten their belts even further. After all, they're told, it's good for you, builds the character and allows you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
And so, the public unions replace the welfare queens as the scapegoats of choice, the latest casualties in a long, protracted class warfare. And as the rich get more money, the poor, working poor, and what's left of a paltry middle class are given pep talks, tough love and sermons. The GOP and their Tea party compatriots have stepped up their austerity game of late, but you should know that this game has been played since the 1970s, when a conservative political backlash sought to widen the gaps along economic and racial lines that people such as Martin Luther King had sought to close. And yet, as we just celebrated the man's birthday, a man who was gunned down while fighting for sanitation workers, the nation fails to follow his philosophy of economic justice and caring for the needs of the poor.
The nonpartisan nonprofit group United For a Fair Economy just released a report called "State of the Dream 2011." The report makes the point that communities of color already had it harder than everyone else. And although the GOP austerity programs will negatively impact all working people, they will increase economic inequality and the racial divide. The social safety net programs that are under attack, such as Social Security, are of great importance to blacks and Latinos.
For example, 42 percent of African-Americans and 37 percent of Latinos are unable to meet their minimal household expenses even three months after they become unemployed. This underscores the devastating effect that cuts in public assistance programs will have on people of color.
Meanwhile, the benefits to the rich are almost exclusively benefits to whites. Blacks and Latinos have no capital gains -- they only earn 13 cents and 8 cents, respectively, for each dollar of dividends that whites earn. And with whites three times more likely than African-Americans to earn $250,000 -- and nearly five times more likely than Latinos -- so much for benefiting from the tax cuts for the big money people.
"The deficits that these tax cuts help create are being used to justify a host of austerity measures that will harm Americans of all races, but will hit Blacks and Latinos the hardest," says Brian Miller, executive director of United For a Fair Economy and co-author of the report. "With 42 percent of Blacks and 37 percent of Latinos lacking the funds to meet minimal household expenses for even three months should they become unemployed, cutting public assistance programs will have devastating impacts on Black and Latino workers."
Miller points out that state and federal workers such as teachers, police officers and food inspectors are on the front line of the budget cuts. Severe cuts to the public sector will hinder America's ability to need the needs of all citizens. But African-Americans will bear the brunt of the layoffs, since they have been disproportionately employed in the public sector. In fact, blacks are 30 percent more likely to work in the public sector, and 70 percent more likely to work for the federal government. So, austerity will only serve to erode any gains that racial minorities have made on the economic front. And given that the purveyors of these austerity measures are job killers -- scoffing at any suggestion that the government should play a role in job creation -- their policies will bring disproportional suffering to disproportionately unemployed workers of color.
This report contains many useful though sobering statistics. The devil's in the details. Here is a sample:
• The official unemployment rate for whites is 8.5 percent. For blacks it is 15.8 percent, and for Latinos the rate is 13 percent. These figures do not take into account the underemployed and those who stopped looking for work.
• 59.1 percent of elderly blacks, and 64.8 percent of Latinos depend on Social Security for over 80 percent of their family income, as opposed to 46 percent of whites, turning the attacks on Social Security into a war on black and brown people. Without the program, 53 percent of older black folks and 49 percent of older Latinos would be impoverished, in contrast to the current rate of 20 percent for these groups;
• Blacks earn 57 cents for every dollar of white median family income, and Latinos earn 59 cents. Looking at median household income, the numbers are 60 cents and 70 cents, respectively;
• Blacks hold 10 cents and Latinos 12 cents of net wealth for every dollar held by whites;
• Blacks are 2.7 times as likely as their white counterparts to have zero or negative net worth. Meanwhile, Latinos are twice as likely to have zero or negative net worth;
From the 1930s through the 1960s, the government played a pivotal role in wealth creation and opportunity. Now a new crop of politicians are perpetuating a regime of wealth inequality, with people of color on the losing end most of the time. Racial minorities are overrepresented among the low earners, and underrepresented among the top earners.
What are the solutions? The report suggests a number of remedies, including a Marshall Plan for the U.S. to create jobs and end the Great Recession; protecting public employees and increasing federal aid to the states; strengthening the social safety net; restoring progressive taxation; reducing wasteful spending such as in the Pentagon, and strengthening labor and the right to organize.
This new wave of austerity is a con game, and it's racist too. Now is the time to reverse the trend and restore equity, justice and sanity to America's economic system.