Downsizing the American Black Middle Class

Government jobs helped thousands of Black families move into the middle class. Now, increasing calls for government privatization are pushing them back out.

Bryce Covert | Longreads | September 2019 | 13 minutes (3,448 words)

Yvonne Renee Evans has been a nurse for more than 30 years, and she has spent most of them in the private sector. It was difficult to get ahead. “I put in multiple applications and never got a chance to advance,” she said. “The opportunities might be there, but I was always given a reason.” As a black woman, she wondered if it “could have been a racial issue.” But it was difficult to prove, even when people who had been there for less time or that she had even trained herself were promoted above her. And “they could remove you at any time,” she noted. Once when she managed operating room scheduling at a hospital with a young, white woman, the hospital decided it wanted to downsize the team to one person. Evans was the one removed from the role, demoted to a lower-level position with a pay cut. “I could have fought it, but it wasn’t worth it,” she said. “You pick your battles, and that wasn’t one I chose to pick.” 

But then, after retiring from two different private sector jobs, she took a position at the John D. Dingell Veterans Administration Medical Center in Detroit in 2008. She didn’t need the work — she could have gone into full retirement — but her husband is ex-Army, and she wanted to serve veterans. She quickly found out it was also a rewarding place to work — very different than what she’d encountered in private hospitals. “The advancement here was wonderful,” she said. “You could move up the professional ladder in leaps and bounds as long as you did the work, you had the credentials. You could get to higher levels than you could in the private sector.” 

She now runs a podiatry clinic. “Every year I get appreciation awards,” she noted. She’s also been awarded for being an exemplary employee at the VA. “I never would have gotten awarded like that in the private sector. Never.” The money doesn’t make her rich, she said, but it does allow her to save for retirement and help her grown children if they need it. “I am truly the middle class,” she said.

Evans wouldn’t have always found a welcoming workplace in the government. As late as the turn of the 20th century, letting black workers into the federal government was seen as “akin to bringing down the federal service,” explained Frederick W. Gooding, assistant professor of African American studies at Texas Christian University and author of American Dream Deferred. Under President Woodrow Wilson entire departments within the federal government were segregated, with literal barricades separating black and white workers in some agencies and extra bathrooms installed so they wouldn’t have to share the same facilities. But then World War II hit. The government needed a lot more employees — both for the war effort and to staff up President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vast expansion of the government. “Because there’s all these new positions, managers can hire people of color without displacing white workers,” said Jennifer Laird, assistant professor of sociology at Lehman College. By the 1960s, that expansion “gave African American workers a foothold in the public sector.” Black people were fleeing “vitriolic racism in the private sector,” Gooding noted. But the racism they once found in public employment was mediated by need. “It’s not because the federal government woke up one day and said, ‘I’m feeling quite altruistic, let’s give blacks opportunities,’” Gooding said. “They needed bodies, it’s simply a supply and demand equation.”

The Great Migration helped take care of the supply. As black families moved en masse from rural Southern areas to urban cities in the North, they found employment with the federal and local governments when they arrived. That movement from the private sector to the public sector built a black middle class across the country, one that to this day is sustained in large part by public sector employment like the job Evans was able to secure at the VA. Those gains, however, are tenuous, and they are particularly threatened as President Trump and his fellow Republicans strive to severely reduce the size of the federal government. 

* * *

The pattern of a booming government sector opening up employment to black workers continued after the war ended. After World War II, “there’s an explosion of state and local employment in all of the states … North and South,” noted Nelson Lichtenstein, history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Some of that was driven by a big expansion in public education, leading to a huge demand for teachers. Some of it was driven by a population boom and the need for workers everywhere, from the Department of Motor Vehicles to public parks. “Labor was still very much needed, and African Americans were right there,” Gooding said. “In such a short span of time … the face of the federal government literally became African American.” According to a 1967 study by Samuel Krislov, black people gained 28 percent of the new jobs in the federal government in the 1960s, even though they made up 10 percent of the U.S. population. 

Laws passed around the same time opened more doors in the federal government. Civil rights legislation established equal opportunity hiring procedures for the whole workforce, but included particular affirmative action programs in the public sector. Black government workers were still often delegated to lower-level, menial jobs, but there was a clearer path to advance into the white-collar and supervisory echelon. Evans took a slight pay cut to move to the VA, but she now makes more than she ever did in the private sector. “That would have never happened in the private sector,” she said. At the VA, “they reward me for the job that I do.” Pay is based on certain clearly defined credentials and metrics. “If you meet those dimensions and criteria … they reward you for it.” It’s transparent and clear-cut.

She’s not the only person of color getting ahead at the VA, either. “There are more people of color with master’s degrees, Ph.D.s, and nurse practitioners than I have seen at any other institution,” says Evans. “I never expected to see it, because I didn’t see that in the private sector. In the private sector, there are very few persons of color in supervision, and advancement is very minute.”

“Bureaucracy will set you free,” Lichtenstein said. The structures and rules imposed on the public sector, which are far less common in the private sector, put a check on racism and favoritism with regulated processes for applying, hiring, and advancement. At the moment, public-sector employees can typically only be fired for cause, and decisions can be appealed. At-will employment, on the other hand — the standard in almost all of the private sector — means you can be fired for any reason, or no reason. The federal government’s General Schedule, which applies to most white-collar employees, transparently governs pay and job classifications. “It’s pretty laid out in terms of steps and promotions,” Gooding noted. “There’s not a whole lot of mystery — it’s public record.” It was all too easy for a private sector employer to fire someone for talking back or rubbing them the wrong way, leaving black employees in a particularly precarious position with respect to their potentially racist bosses. “I was a believer that if you did a good job you got rewarded. And that wasn’t the case,” Evans said. “If you did a good job you got used.” The rules regulating employment in the public sector acted as a buffer against personal discrimination.

‘Bureaucracy will set you free,’ Lichtenstein said.

Evans can also count on having a job so long as she keeps working hard. Public-sector unionization is five times higher than for private-sector workers; thanks to the union she and her coworkers belong to — she was never in a union in the private sector — as well as laws governing how public-sector employees are let go, “they can’t just get rid of you,” she noted. Termination has to be for good cause and follow a formal process. “That’s what unions do: They create structures [and] end managerial capriciousness,” Lichtenstein said. 

“Government jobs tend to be permanent jobs,” Lichtenstein said. “In an economy of ups and downs and chaos, these are going to be particularly valued by people who are going to be hurt by that chaos,” i.e., marginalized workers. The government offers a haven from some of those storms; the Irish, excluded from higher-paying private-sector jobs during the period of heavy immigration in the mid-1800s, found public-sector alternatives by the end of the century and flocked to the refuge of government employment, with many men ending up as policemen and firemen. 

For African Americans in particular, public-sector jobs were often better than what was on private offer for black workers. “Women [were] secretaries and blacks [were] janitors, and that’s just the end of the story,” Lichtenstein said. In the South especially, black people could only find employment as agricultural workers if they were men, or as domestic help if they were women. And it wasn’t just about pay; the public sector offered stability and good benefits: health care, pensions, and savings. “By aligning themselves with the federal government, for the first time they were able to provide for their families in a different way,” Gooding said. That was “an important entrée for many blacks entering the middle class.”

In Washington, D.C., a slew of black workers got jobs with the federal government starting at end of the 19th century. “It became a model for the creation of a black middle class,” Lichtenstein said. They were good, steady jobs, and subsequent generations also went to work in similar jobs, building and sustaining a “very solid middle class” in the city, he said. But public-sector expansion helped build a black middle class across the country. “The black middle class is disproportionately linked to governmental employment,” Lichtenstein said. White workers who could get high-quality jobs in the private sector had multiple doors open to them; for African Americans, the public sector was a key path toward financial stability.

And when black workers gain a foothold in the government, they help others to enter.  The structured advancement opportunities meant that a cohort of black workers was able to move up into managerial roles — and from that perch, they were able to reach out a hand and bring in more behind them. Once she saw the advancement opportunities at the VA in action, Evans started to encourage other people of color to join her for the career opportunities available. 

* * *

According to various studies over the past decade, black workers accounted for 10.9 percent of all employment, but made up 12.8 percent of state and local public-sector jobs and nearly 20 percent of the federal workforce. Black public-sector employees enjoy better median pay, and thus financial stability, than their peers in the private sector. The racial wage gap is smaller, for example, in state and local governments, and in some places more educated black workers outearn white ones. On the whole, black men and women earn about a quarter more in the public sector than in the general workforce. 

All of these advancements, and the black middle class’s grip on economic security, however, are put at direct risk when politicians attack government and call to shrink it through cuts, moving responsibilities into the private sector, or both — all changes at the top of President Trump’s agenda. He ran on “draining the swamp” and reducing the size of government. His one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon’s project was “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Since taking office, he’s put those goals into action as often and in as many places as he can.

Take the VA where Evans works: As a candidate, Trump was outspokenly in favor of privatizing the agency. Since then, he’s signed a bill into law that expands options for private care, which some advocates worry is a step along the path toward full privatization. In 2017, he proposed spinning air traffic control systems into a nongovernment entity. His infrastructure plans proposed tax breaks to private companies in the form of tax-exempt bonds to fund construction; he then turned around and proposed $206 billion in cuts to federal programs that directly fund infrastructure. His Department of Housing and Urban Development is working to dramatically expand a program (enacted during the Obama administration) that privatizes public housing to clear a backlog of much-needed renovations and repairs. Last summer his administration floated the idea of privatizing the Postal Service, although seemed to walk that back in an actual proposal for overhauling it released at the end of last year; this year, they’re pursuing the privatization of public parks.

Even when he isn’t seeking to lop branches off of the federal government and replant them in the business community, he’s aimed to significantly whittle them down. His 2020 budget proposed huge reductions in nearly every nonmilitary agency except for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Commerce — and the last two were only spared due to, respectively, the privatized care bill he signed and funding for the 2020 Census. “This budget will have more reductions in spending than any president in history has ever proposed,” a senior administration official boasted to reporters after its release.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


There are other tactics at work to reduce or simply demonize federal workers, too. Just three days into his administration, Trump signed an executive order instituting a hiring freeze for the federal workforce, forcing agencies to keep jobs open and preventing them from filling existing jobs and new ones as they open up (with some exemptions for positions related to national security and public safety). He then lifted and replaced the freeze with a directive to agency heads to deeply cut personnel. “That is how you drain the swamp,” his budget chief Mick Mulvaney said at the time. “At the end of the day, this leads to a government that is dramatically more accountable, dramatically more efficient, and dramatically more effective at following through on the promises that the president made during the campaign.” He also announced a pay freeze for 2019 that blocked a 2.1 percent increase federal workers were expecting, and his most recent budget proposed cutting their pensions.

Trump has even mulled eliminating entire federal agencies. At others, his administration is moving employees around the country in such a way that will almost certainly mean that many will quit. He signed three executive orders aimed at making it easier to fire federal employees and weaken their unions, and even after core elements of those orders were struck down by a judge his administration has pursued the same goals through its mediation of federal union negotiations. 

He is not, of course, the only politician, especially not the only Republican, to rail against the government he helps lead and seek to shrink it down. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, made a name for himself by releasing budgets that proposed dramatically cutting government programs (a project taken up by other congressional Republicans when he stopped authoring them). He also embraced privatizing government functions, from infrastructure to health care.

* * *

If Trump and his fellow Republicans get their way on even some of these proposals, the impact won’t be neutral. It will cut sharpest and deepest for black Americans.

“Anything you do to the federal workforce will disproportionately impact black workers,” Laird said. Attacks on the government “are not race neutral so long as blacks are overrepresented in the federal workforce.”

Lichtenstein agrees. “It will have a disproportionate impact on African American employment [and] possibly advancement, unquestionably — no doubt about it.” While public-sector employment has offered more opportunity and security for black workers, it’s not without bias, and even the structure and transparency can’t fully eradicate racism. As of 2016, black public workers were still paid less and advanced more slowly than white workers (though they do outearn Latinx public workers), leaving them more vulnerable to being fired when government employment shrinks. “African Americans are at mid-level or lower-level positions, most of them,” Gooding said. “Those are the positions that are usually hardest hit first.” It might make more sense to outsource, for example, administrative assistants than it does legal experts. But since black Americans are still more crowded into those lower-rung jobs, they may be the ones first to feel the impact.

The same is likely to play out if states follow the federal government’s lead. Studies indicated that when state governments slashed their budgets to deal with the twin pressures of lower tax revenues and higher enrollment in public assistance during the recession, black workers ended up laid off at higher rates. But even as the economy has recovered, many states have still focused on keeping spending low. Nearly a third are still spending less today than they did before the recession truly hit, and even in states where spending is back on track, many programs remain underfunded. That has also meant that government employment remains at its lowest level since 2009. The effects of these decisions often fall heaviest on black workers. In 2011, for example, Wisconsin implemented sharp and immediate funding cuts. In the aftermath, “black public sector employment started to rebound in most states, but in Wisconsin it continued to plummet,” Laird said. 

Even the idea that the government is inefficient and wasteful, constantly used by Republicans to call for its reduction, is racialized. “When Trump and others talk about the inefficiency of the government … it is a significant factor [that people are] associating inefficiency with a person of color,” Gooding noted.

And thanks to the racism that still permeates private-sector hiring — an in-depth 2002 study found that intentional discrimination exists in every industry and every part of the country — black ex-public employees may not easily find another job once they’re booted from the government. Black workers who lost jobs in the public sector were less likely than white workers to find new employment in the private sector, particularly women — they just left the workforce altogether. And black women are less likely than white women to find their way back into the public-sector workforce. “There are long-term consequences when you hemorrhage black workers from the government workforce,” Laird said. 

Given the racial wealth gap, black families are also less likely to have accumulated wealth to fall back on in hard times. At the median, a black household has just about $7,000 in wealth holdings, while a white family has more than $111,000. “Compared to white workers, they have a tenuous grasp on their class status,” Laird said. The loss of one good government job could push a whole black family out of middle-class stability into lower-income precarity, permanently shifting economic demographics for generations.

* * *

Evans could retire now, but she chooses to keep working at the VA. “I love coming to work. I have perfect attendance,” she said. “You have to love doing what you do. That wasn’t the case in the private sector.” But she’s concerned about what Trump might have in store for the VA, and therefore for her and her coworkers. Evans’s department could be closed entirely. There are currently 49,000 positions open and unfilled across the VA — Evans estimates that there are 100 at Dingell alone — that could be going to qualified people of color. “Some of those are management positions,” she pointed out. “That means that there’s nobody moving up into those spots.” It’s opportunity lost, particularly for black workers.

Deeply cutting the government and pushing pieces of it into the private sector creates enormous racial ripple effects. “You’re affecting a minority group and also rolling back historical gains that had been made in terms of job stability and wages,” Laird said. Those gains took decades to achieve, but they can take just one administration to unravel. And they won’t be easily regained even if a new administration replaces this one and takes a different, more supportive approach with the federal workforce. They may take another series of decades to rebuild — if they can be rebuilt at all. “At one point we had three or so pillars of black stability,” noted Steven Pitts, associate chair of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center. There were black entrepreneurs serving black consumers, black workers who broke into unionized sectors like auto and steel manufacturing, and black public sector employees. But integration disappeared the first, while deindustrialization has hollowed out the second. “Attacks on the public sector — you’re hitting a third pillar,” he said.

“It’s like a person taking a knife standing next to a tree and slowly cutting pieces off. You don’t notice it at first, but when you turn around and look that tree is a pencil,” Evans said. “I think that’s what’s going to happen with the VA if we allow them to keep doing what they’re doing. They’re going to whittle this system down to nothing, we’re going to be a pencil instead of a tree.”

* * *

Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy and a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Fact checker: Matt Giles
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross