"Urban transit systems in most American cities... have become a genuine civil rights issue - and a valid one - because the layout of rapid-transit systems determines the accessibility of jobs to the black community. If transportation systems in American cities could be laid out so as to provide an opportunity for poor people to get meaningful employment, then they could begin to move into the mainstream of American life..."
Almost 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King (quoted above) recognized that it is practically impossible for African Americans to climb out of poverty without transportation to a good job.
The sad truth is that for too many, this still rings true today.
In 2015, we like to think we've progressed far beyond the racist practices of the past, and in many ways we have. But for the transit-dependent urban poor who are overwhelmingly African American, there has been little change. And, unfortunately, things are getting worse.
'Get a job!'
"Get a job!" is the oft-heard refrain of politicians who exploit the anger of voters who resent handing their tax dollars over to so-called "slackers" and "welfare queens."
Too many Americans simply accept those unfair stereotypes without looking any further. The reality is that a great many who receive public assistance are working hard at one or often two low-wage jobs just to get by.
The big barrier to getting a good job is still a lack of public transit needed to get there in time, if at all.
As Dr. King observed: "The system has virtually no consideration for connecting the poor people with their jobs. There is only one possible explanation for this situation, and that is the racist blindness of city planners."
Few people consider themselves racist today. So why do these unfair urban planning policies persist?
The reason, as Dr. King asserted, above, is the "racist blindness" of otherwise good people - particularly when it comes to public transit - that frustrates the ability of the urban poor to move from welfare rolls to employments rolls.
A recent study of public transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN - an area known for its progressive social programs - bears this out.
The study reveals that persons of color in the Twin Cities suffer from a "transit time penalty" - which is the additional time it takes to travel between two points by public transportation compared to travel by car. That comes to almost a month per year more than white drivers' travel time to work.
This problem is not limited to the North Star State. In fact, "austerity budgets" (that state and municipal governments continue to pass despite the supposed end of the recession) have cut urban transit to such an extent that "transit deserts" have appeared in cities like Detroit where public transportation is desperately needed.
Those austerity budgets, however, haven't prevented cities across the country from funding quaint little "boutique" streetcar lines next to existing bus routes to slowly ferry tourists through their business and tourist districts - diverting tax revenue from the real transit needs of the urban poor.
Public sector cuts
Austerity budgets have lead to cuts in the public sector - jobs that have brought generations of African Americans into the middle class. Many of these jobs are being eliminated or outsourced to private transnational employers who pay much less than government. This, again, is particularly true in public transit.
Take the Ingram family, for whom employment by the Miami-Dade County transit system has meant regular paychecks, and a steady advance up the economic ladder. Profiled recently in The New York Times, the Ingrams like many African Americans view government employment as a pathway to the middle class. Conversely, the recent decline in state, local and federal employment has created greater hardship in black communities.
A new Economic Policy Institute paper explains how "the disproportionate share of women and African Americans working in state and local government has translated into higher rates of job loss for both groups in these sectors."
"From February 2010 (the month the labor market "bottomed out") to January 2012," the report says, "the United States experienced a net increase in total nonfarm employment of more than 3.2 million jobs, while state and local government employment fell by 438,000. Over this period, every major sector of the economy experienced net growth in jobs - except the public sector."
This has had a particularly dramatic effect on African-Americans, who can no longer rely on the rock solid security, decent pay, and good benefits government work used to provide.
If it seems like the deck is stacked against persons of color that's because it is.
Not only do the poor suffer more than others for the sins of our financial system, but also they find it is even harder than it was before to get to work and make ends meet.
We need to fix this problem not only because it's unjust, but also because it is a drag on our economy that hurts us all. There's no such thing as a recovery that leaves some segments of society worse off than they were before while the rich get richer.
We won't truly emerge from the recession until everyone who works hard and plays by the rules, regardless of gender or color, has an equal shot at succeeding in America.
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