My father worked for more than two decades as a bus driver and supervisor for the city of New York. Today, well into his retirement, he has a modest pension and health benefits. But the stability and opportunity afforded to my father and our family by city employment is being threatened for the current generation, especially in communities of color.
My father’s job was part of the doors opened by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that aimed to end racial discrimination in employment. Today, about one in five black workers has a job in the public sector. But during the past year, while the private sector has added 1.9 million jobs, state and local governments have cut 250,000 positions. Those layoffs compound already bleak economic fortunes among Blacks and Latinos whose jobless rates remain much higher than the national average. Cities, trying to stay afloat, are making cuts that could make this crisis far worse. Sharp reductions in municipal jobs like bus drivers, police officers, and social workers will disproportionately impact an already fragile black working and middle class.
These workers will now turn to the private sector. But even with nearly a half-century of anti-discrimination laws, significant discrimination persists. According to one 2009 study by professors from Princeton and Harvard, white applicants with a criminal record were just as likely to get a job offer or callback as black applicants without a criminal record. Republicans like to talk about government jobs as waste. But these jobs are central to a working democracy. In a discriminatory job market, they have been a veritable beacon of fair hiring practices for black and Latino citizens. It’s not just about saving jobs. For example, cuts to city services like public transportation can unravel the very delicate threads that connect poor families to daycare and schools, and their jobs.
Budget cuts that ignore these disparities may derail a half-century of efforts to create a more level playing field in the workplace, threaten the future health of cities and crush the black and Latino communities within them. Strategies that take these disparities into account could make all the difference.