African Americans on Shifting Ground
By Alec Klein
The Washington Post
Saturday 18 December 2004
A tenuous hold on the middle class.
Miami - A couple of months ago, Kayasa Cobb entered a dim, cramped cubicle to apply for a job
paying about $7 an hour selling clothes at Burdines-Macy's.
Then she started thinking. She already had a full-time job as an executive at an image-consulting
business earning $39,000 a year - slightly more than the national average of $17 an hour - and was
strapped for time as it was. Her husband was holding down two jobs, at a library and a movie theater,
to help pay the expense of raising two small children. Did the family really need a fourth income to get
"It was absurd," she says of the department store job, which she ultimately decided not to pursue.
"It was a crazy idea."
Even as African Americans and other minorities have made economic progress in the last 40 years,
many of those reaching the middle-income rung, like Cobb, are finding it a hollow promise. In earlier
decades, a union-protected factory worker or government employee earning such a wage could expect
a comfortable life with company-provided health and retirement benefits, and perhaps enough money
for indulgences such as the occasional new car.
Now, though, blacks and other minorities reaching the economic middle find the ground shifting.
By all rights, Cobb should be making it. She studied evenings and weekends to graduate with a
master's degree in human resources earlier this year, and then was hired as operations manager for an
African American-owned business, a springboard - she hopes - to becoming an entrepreneur herself.
But the 33-year-old and her husband aren't even close to making it. "Why don't we own our home?"
she wants to know. "Why don't we have money in the bank? Why are we just making ends meet?"
Changes in the global economy and advances in technology have, of course, buffeted
middle-income workers of all races. Blacks, however, have faced some particular challenges.
Beneficiaries of the post-World War II boom in manufacturing, they have lost a disproportionate
number of jobs as the factory workforce declined in recent years. While African Americans have made
substantial advances in the service sector and have been opening small businesses at a pace quicker
than whites, other vulnerabilities work to offset those gains. Employer-sponsored health care and
retirement benefits have been eroding throughout the economy, but, in the case of private pensions,
have declined faster for blacks. With generally fewer resources to fall back on - the median net worth of
African American families is $19,000, about 15 percent of that for whites - home down payments move
out of reach, and periods of sluggish wage growth, like the current one, hit even harder.
Subject historically to higher-rate credit cards and mortgages, even black families with steady and
respectable incomes find themselves treading water or falling behind. According to a recent study by
Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, black families are more than six times more likely to
file for bankruptcy than whites.
"In a sense, it's a legacy of the racism that kept today's black families' grandparents out of good
paying jobs," Warren says. "That echoes through the generations."
To be sure, there are more African Americans in the upper income bracket than ever before. The
portion of black households making $75,000 to $99,999, for example, increased nearly fourfold
between 1967 and 2003, rising to 7 percent of the black population. The portion of white households in
that income range merely doubled, to 11.5 percent.
But for African Americans, the picture overall is of a group with a tenuous hold on economic health,
even for those ostensibly in the middle class.
"Even for blacks who are following the model of the American middle class, going to college, getting
a white-collar job, blacks have taken it on the chin," says labor economist William Spriggs, former
executive director of the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality, which analyzes
One Step Away
That's how Cobb feels.
She grew up in the shadow of the nearby Miami projects in a small, three-bedroom home with as
many as 15 relatives packed in at once. Her mother worked as a state foster care secretary for 32
years, a testament to the type of career security that generation relied on to raise their families. Cobb
says her father was killed during a robbery in his home when she was 10 years old.
Cobb was the first in her family to get a college degree. When she was hired in June by HeavenSent
Consultants Inc., she was thrust into the biggest job of her life. She had no experience in image
consulting - giving clients advice about how to dress and look better. But as operations manager, she
handles accounting and vendor relations and oversees the company's three staffers. On occasion, she
also teaches a welfare-to-work class sponsored by the firm.
The job pays $2,000 a year more than what she earned before as an assistant director of human
resources at Florida Memorial College. But Cobb didn't take the consulting job because of the money.
What she was looking for, she said, was "room for growth," a job that promised the possibility of
owning her own business one day. Cobb would like to start a temporary employment agency, and even
has a name for it: K's Temporary Service.
"I want to change my life," she says, "so my children won't have to go through this."
By "this" she means the barrage of phone calls, demanding she write a check for her overdue car
payments ($346 monthly). There's day care for Kennedy, her infant daughter, at $520 a month. The
family's health-insurance premium is approaching $400 a month.
It's little things, like the cubic zirconia ring on her wedding finger; that's all her husband, Jammie,
It's big things, too, like the $80,000 her family owes in student loans, car loans and credit cards.
That's about four times the median debt of a minority family and twice that of whites, according to the
latest Federal Reserve figures.
Even with her husband's income - he earns about $21,000 as a librarian assistant and $5.45 an hour
as an usher and maintenance man at a movie theater - the household is run on a razor-thin margin.
"I feel like I'm one step away," she says, from becoming the welfare recipients she tries to help.
Ground Gained and Lost
If it looks tough from Cobb's perspective today, the past century has told a story of progress for
blacks and other minorities. The first two World Wars created new opportunities for factory jobs in the
North, and blacks migrated by the millions from the Jim Crow South, creating the backbone of a
nascent middle class, with relatively secure jobs and benefits. Coupled with the desegregation of
colleges and universities and the increasing influence of black communities in urban centers like
Washington, African Americans began to find firmer economic ground. Immigrant groups, particularly
Hispanics, have also been absorbed into that generally rising economy.
Since 1967, the earliest year for which statistics are available, median household income for blacks
has increased by nearly 47 percent, to $29,645 in 2003. That's much faster than the 31 percent growth
rate for white households during that time. But the median for black households is still $16,000 less
than for white ones, a point reinforced by a study released this week by two Duke University professors
who found that African Americans in the baby boom generation have not closed the income gap.
Hispanics have made gains, too, with household median income rising to $32,997 in 2003, up 13
percent since 1972, the earliest year for which Census has tabulated data for that minority group.
Asians have a household median income of $55,699, although their rate of growth, at 12 percent since
1987, the earliest year available, has not been as dramatic as it has been for blacks.
Within the trend, however, there are some troubling footnotes. The unemployment rate for blacks
remains nearly double the national rate of less than 6 percent. In addition, two of the job categories
that have historically helped boost black income - manufacturing and the public sector - are stagnating,
Public-sector jobs opened up to blacks in greater numbers in the wake of the civil rights movement
of the 1960s, but cuts in government spending throughout the United States in recent years have
limited growth. Black employment in such jobs rose 66 percent from 1983 to 1995 but has been
essentially flat since then.
The number of manufacturing jobs, meanwhile, has been sliding for a quarter-century, falling by 10
percent between 1992 and 2002 alone. Blacks lost ground at an even quicker pace: Over that same 10
years, the number of African Americans in manufacturing declined by 18 percent.
As a result, African Americans have turned to the service sector - spanning such professions as
data processing and advertising and lower-level jobs such as housekeeping - like much of the rest of
the workforce, only more so. The number of African Americans working in the service sector has nearly
doubled in the past 20 years and now makes up about 43 percent of the black workforce, a percentage
larger than for the economy as a whole.
But many of those jobs have been characterized in recent years by anemic wage growth and
eroding benefits. On a percentage basis, far fewer blacks than whites are covered by
employer-sponsored health care - 52 percent compared with 71 percent - and less than 40 percent of
blacks are covered by private pension plans, compared with more than 46 percent for whites.
The lack of benefits is also partly due to the fact that blacks have been opening their own
businesses in record numbers, and many of those small enterprises don't offer health insurance and
pensions. The number of black-owned businesses jumped 33 percent to 823,499 in 1997 from 621,000
in 1992, according to the latest census figures. Black businesses still make up only about 4 percent of
the national total, but their growth rate was more than four times the increase for all U.S. firms over
Encouraging as a sign of entrepreneurship, that trend has also presented some hard truths about
what it takes to get by, as Cobb testifies.
Trapped in a Trend
Cobb's career has followed a common path. As a college graduate, she can be fairly well assured of
staying employed: The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree or greater in the United
States is 2.5 percent, far below the national average.
Service jobs such as Cobb's now make up about 80 percent of the employment in Miami-Dade
County and increased 59 percent since 1990. She also reflects the county's growing black population,
which has increased by 23 percent since 1990. That includes her boss, Carla Harris, who moved from
Washington to Miami, where she opened HeavenSent.
For much of the past decade, Cobb could feel the momentum of those trends in her own life, as she
earned pay raises and promotions.
But every day, Cobb says, she is reminded of her family's economic strains on the way home from
work. Listening to Christian radio, she picks up her infant daughter from day care, then her husband
from the library, then her 8-year-old son from her mother's house.
All the while, in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 North, the conversation revolves around how they
can make their lives better: How can they cut costs? Should her husband go to community college?
Where can they afford to live? At home, the conversation continues as her husband cooks a late
dinner, while she uses the heel of her infant's white shoe to stamp out a trail of ants crawling on an
empty kitchen cabinet.
Things could be worse. Just outside her apartment, they are. In her concrete complex, she says the
night is sometimes punctuated by the echo of gunshots, or the crash of a neighbor's door knocked
down by police.
"I don't even let my son play outside," she says.
She feels trapped, too.
Earlier this year, Cobb applied for a local government grant to help buy a home in a safer
neighborhood. She was denied, she says, because her family made too much money.
"Sometimes, I wonder," Cobb says. "Is my life normal?"
Published: Dec 18, 2004
Modified: Dec 18, 2004 2:05 PM
Probe prompts review of national
black farmers' case
By TERENCE CHEA, Associated Press Writer
SAN FRANCISCO -- An investigation into a public defender who was practicing
without a law license could have wide-ranging implications for one of the
largest civil rights settlements in U.S. history.
The focus of the local investigation, Margaret O'Shea, worked for the U.S.
Justice Department on a series of settlements with black farmers who claim
they were denied federal loans because of their race.
Two national groups representing the farmers, including one based in North
Carolina, are calling on Congress and the U.S. Justice Department to
investigate O'Shea's involvement two years ago in the historic class-action
settlement. To date, thousands of black farmers have received awards totaling
more than $650 million.
"It's a disgrace," said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer who is president of the
National Black Farmers Association. "It's a shame that after all we've been
through, we had an unlicensed attorney reviewing cases and affecting the lives
of black farmers across the country. ... She should have been checked out
before she was assigned to work on these cases."
O'Shea, who lives in Santa Cruz, was charged with one felony count of grand
theft for cashing paychecks under false pretenses and one misdemeanor
count for practicing law without a license after her supervisors learned she
wasn't an accredited attorney. Monterey County is reviewing 86 cases she
handled during a three-week period ending in late September.
She is scheduled to be arraigned Monday in Monterey County Superior Court in
The national case involved thousands of black farmers, most from the South
and Midwest, who sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997. They allege
discrimination when they applied for crop loans and subsidies.
In 1999, the department agreed to a landmark settlement with 22,000 farmers.
They could receive $50,000 each if they could demonstrate that they didn't
receive the same treatment as comparable white farmers.
About 40 percent of the 22,000 farmers were denied payments. Some 73,000
others claim they were shut out because the settlement deadline wasn't
advertised widely enough, according to a report by the Environmental Working
The report claims that the Justice Department, which represented the
Department of Agriculture, spent at least 56,000 staff hours and $12 million
contesting individual farmer's claims.
"The government is trying to get out of paying the farmers," said Gary Grant,
president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, based in
Tillery, N.C. "They had no intention of paying in the first place."
It's still unclear exactly how O'Shea was involved in the case and whether her
involvement could lead to individual settlements being overturned.
O'Shea, 38, and her attorney, Enda Brennan, did not respond to multiple
telephone calls over several days seeking comment.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller confirmed that O'Shea was
hired specifically to work on the case, known as Pigford vs. Veneman, from
April to September 2002. The department hired her as a "general attorney,"
according to personnel records obtained by the environmental group through
the Freedom of Information Act.
Miller wouldn't comment on the nature of O'Shea's work or whether the
department was investigating her role.
The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution is
investigating O'Shea's involvement, said Todd Lindgren, a spokesman for
subcommittee chairman Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.
The groups representing the farmers said they plan to raise the issue when
the subcommittee holds its next hearing on the contentious settlement
process, likely to take place next month in Cincinnati.
"Both sides (Republicans and Democrats) agree that there have been
enormous problems with the Pigford settlement process," Lindgren said. "Both
sides have been critical of the government's handling of this so far."
The Justice Department should review all the cases O'Shea handled, said
Arianne Callender, a lawyer for the environmental group.
"The farmers may have made different decisions during negotiations if they
had known the lawyer they were working with wasn't licensed to practice law,"
The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association said the Department of
Agriculture should make sure all the attorneys are licensed and review all the
"If she was in the office, and she was having discussions about them, we don't
know who she influenced," said Grant, of the Black Farmers and
O'Shea was hired by the Monterey County Public Defender's Office in August
after indicating on her application and during interviews that she was licensed
to practice law in California. Shortly after she started, a co-worker tried to
research O'Shea's legal background and discovered she wasn't listed as a
Monterey County Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz said his office
investigated O'Shea's background and could not find evidence that she was
licensed in any state. If convicted of the two charges, O'Shea faces up to three
years in prison, he said.