Best guess is that it’s that time of the political season again: government shutdowns. Just two years out from the last one and a year away from the next presidential election cycle, the dire prospect of one fresh federal work stoppage looms large on the horizon. Washington dysfunction has set in hard, a polarizing clash of the ideologies banging heads over everything from military spending to Western shootout-style duels over the fate of Planned Parenthood’s funding.
And if it’s a shutdown, it is bound to hit African Americans the hardest.
How? Well, first, it’s important to ask: How did we arrive here … again?
With legislators appearing not to have learned anything from the previous fiasco this same time in 2013, many scratch their collective heads wondering what happened. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were even offering personal assurances that it wouldn’t happen again. But previous shutdowns never really posed any real political threat to the GOP, as the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump points out here. Despite most polls showing universal blame for the previous shutdown falling on Congressional Republicans, the following Congressional midterm election year found the GOP expanding their grip on the House and retaking the Senate. Only 22 percent of Republican voters blamed Republicans in Congress in a post-shutdown poll; more than double the number of whites (35 percent) blamed President Obama compared to non-whites (17 percent). YouGov polling showed overwhelming numbers of Republicans (73 percent), conservatives (65 percent), whites (45 percent) and independents (51 percent) blaming POTUS for the shutdown again.
Those breakdowns are important because it explains the original political drivers forcing shutdowns. The demographics above are those that ended up turning out the most in the following 2014 midterm election, a very low overall 38 percent turnout punctuated by very sharp drops in turnout by African American voters and other blocs of color.
As a result, black policy priorities take back seat in Washington.
The winners in Congressional midterms have no real political incentive to prevent yet another shutdown. It’s a rather unfortunate situation since said shutdowns hurt African Americans the most. Not only are blacks the biggest policy “losers” – as pointed out by a March Joint Center study – but they are disproportionately harmed when federal funding comes to a standstill: black public sector workers find themselves without a paycheck and financially-strapped black citizens who heavily rely on social programs are suddenly under greater pressure to survive. Both populations are traditionally underserved and further socio-economically disemboweled by the effects of recession.
Black workers are the second largest employee population in the federal government, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the federal workforce, according to the Office of Personnel Management. As the Center for American Progress’ Farah Ahmad notes, “African Americans … after the civil rights gains of the 1960s, saw that public service employment opened up economic opportunities for good, well-paid jobs that provide some measure of protection against discrimination. The competitive pay scales of government employment have lifted generations of black people into the middle class.”
When compared to a private sector where discriminatory odds are still stacked heavy against black workers, college graduates and potential hires, government jobs are not only good jobs, but they are widely viewed within the African American community as the best jobs. As the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of Berkley shows, blacks are 30 percent “more likely” to join the local, state and federal public sector workforce, translating into more than 20 percent of “all Black workers [being] public employees, compared with 16.3% of non-Black workers.” The Economic Policy Institute also notes blacks represented 16 percent of the state and local workforce in 1997, a share that dramatically dipped during the recession to just 12 percent by 2011 (troubling when blacks accounted for a low 10.3 percent of the private sector workforce share at that time).
Hence, government shutdowns resulting in mass non-paying furloughs of federal government workers can wreak enormous socio-economic havoc on black communities. The last shutdown resulted in $12 billion to $24 billion worth of national economic loss and 250,000 jobs cut, the effects of which were most pronounced on black families – and not just federal workers once government contractors and other private businesses reliant on federal funds are counted in the equation. As Ahmad points out, the 2013 shutdown may have resulted in the furloughs of 150,000 black federal workers. The effects are particularly acute in black middle class communities with large pockets of federal workers, such as the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, since middle class African Americans – as shown here by Brookings’ Richard Reeves – do not have the same financial cushion as middle class whites. Local economies feel the impact. The five non-Washington area states with the largest black federal civilian workforce populations are also home to some of the largest concentrations of black communities in the United States: Texas, Georgia, California, Florida, Alabama.
States with large black federal workforces are also states with high rates of black poverty, from the DC/Maryland/Virginia area to the five states mentioned above, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Maryland, home to black federal worker-heavy Prince George’s County, has a black poverty rate of 14 percent; Texas at 23 percent.
Further complicating the situation is the disproportionate number of African Americans who rely on federal social programs just to get by.
It all depends on how long and how deep. In the last episode, a “modest” shutdown found Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and veterans benefits were flowing without much interruption. So to were welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Unemployment benefits, at least those that hadn’t expired since Congress cut extensions a long while back, were relatively unaffected, as well, at least according to what we know.
But should it go longer than two weeks, Head Start programs will slowly close, veterans won’t see benefit checks, Women Infants and Children (WIC) programs will suddenly need state carry-over money and small businesses will have trouble receiving federal loan guarantees. Roughly 30 percent of all children enrolled in Head Start programs are African American while 20 percent of WIC participants, according to federal government data, are black. All of the above represent crucial federal programs that are widely utilized by or relied upon African Americans. A combination of pain felt by federal workers, the lack of revenue from government coffers flowing into the economy and the shortsighted slow-death of crucial poverty programs, particularly during a sluggish economic recovery period, will be widely felt. But African Americans are bound to absorb some potentially fatal financial body blows should a shutdown persist. We’ll be watching it closely.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a Contributing Editor for TheRoot.com and Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune. He can be reached @ellisonreport.