“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford a hamburger?” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked in 1968. Today, many of us who fought for lunch-counter rights have children and grandchildren who can’t afford a restaurant meal.

It’s not just people of color who are paying the price. All communities, including whites, African-Americans, Latinos, and others in Rust Belt states, the northeast corridor, and “new economy” Sun Belt states are losing jobs, homes, and businesses. It’s a nightmarish destruction of wealth.

For communities that were already in economic freefall before this recession, it’s a catastrophe. Unless we take action soon, generations of progress may get reversed.

African-American unemployment is 16.5 percent (versus 9 percent for whites). Look at any indicator of economic well-being–jobs, income, poverty, health care–and it’s clear that African Americans are still falling behind.

Manufacturing’s demise in the United States has robbed millions of African Americans of their jobs, along with their membership in America’s middle class. Places that were hit the hardest by these job losses–Chicago’s South Side, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Toledo, Atlanta–all have large black populations. Local tax bases are shrinking, eroding education and destroying public jobs, public services, and public safety.

African-American communities were targeted for subprime lending, and we’ve been disproportionately slammed by foreclosures and bankruptcies. Communities suffering these economic blows are less able to support minority-owned small businesses–the auto dealership, the barbershop, and more.

Perhaps most disturbing, the economic scarring of African Americans–and of all those suffering from unemployment in this crisis–may endure for generations. Think of the child who doesn’t get enough to eat. She has trouble concentrating in a school which is in disrepair and has class sizes too large because teachers have been cut. Her state has cut funding for higher education. One out of six adults around her is unemployed.

Acting immediately is essential for communities carrying the heaviest weight of the crisis. Five steps can save and create 4 million jobs and help secure the future.

  1. Maintain the lifeline of extended unemployment insurance, health care, and food assistance. A record 38 percent of the unemployed have been without jobs for 27 weeks or more. African-Americans remain jobless for an average of five weeks longer than others. Maintaining the lifeline is a matter of survival.
  2. Pump life back into deindustrialized communities. We can start by retooling shuttered factories and building new facilities for green jobs. In Gary, Indiana, two closed steel mills reopened due to increased demand from wind turbine manufacturers. General Motors plans to build a new facility in Detroit to assemble battery packs for hybrid vehicles. These initiatives show that change can happen where we need it most–but we’ve got to invest more to jumpstart these efforts on a larger scale.
  3. Rescue states and communities with budget shortfalls before they lay off teachers, police officers, and firefighters. Our investments can save desperately needed middle class jobs and make distressed communities safer and more livable.
  4. Hire community banks to lend leftover TARP money directly to small and medium-sized businesses. The banks we taxpayers so generously bailed out still aren’t lending to medium and small businesses, the engine for job growth in communities.
  5. Connect jobless people in distressed communities directly with work that needs to be done. In Los Angeles, a construction careers policy combines local hiring requirements, apprenticeships and a project labor agreement ensuring middle-class wages and benefits to move residents into skilled jobs on green construction projects. A portion of jobs is dedicated to people in extreme poverty and those who lack high school diplomas. These jobs must pay competitive wages, so that we’re not replacing good state and local government jobs with temporary or poorly paid positions.

These five steps are the start we need right now to rebuild an economy that works for Main Street and MLK Boulevard, not just Wall Street.

Arlene Holt Baker is the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, a union movement that represents 11.5 million members. www.aflcio.org



Arlene Holt Baker
Arlene Holt Baker

Arlene Holt Baker served as AFL-CIO Executive Vice President from 2009–2013.