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Labor Day's Fruit Has Yet to Arrive for Some

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It's Labor Day and many people are trying to squeeze out the last possible moments of sun-drenched fun before returning to work and school. Unlike Veterans Day, there are no large scale salutes to American workers acknowledging all the efforts of those who have helped make America the envy of the world. President Bush isn't speaking before a large memorial to American ingenuity. My reflections on the state of the American worker were shaken recently by a report released by the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education. The report points out ominously that more than half of African American workers in America are mired in low paying jobs that have no retirement and health benefits, or opportunities for advancement.

The report, "Job Quality and Black Workers: An Examination of the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York," analyzes low-wage jobs among black workers, using data from the 2000 U.S. Census. While the study focuses on four areas, its findings can be extrapolated nationally. Indeed, African American workers may be better positioned in these areas, which means things are even worse for Black labor in other parts of the country.

One finding warrants particular attention - 56.5 percent of African Americans work in low-wage jobs (those paying $12.87 per hour or less). According to the report, the manufacturing, retail trade, and health care and social assistance sectors employ approximately 40 percent of all black workers. Retail trade and the health care and social assistance sectors include larger proportions of black low-wage workers than the national black average of 56.5 percent. Concern about these numbers cannot be brushed aside by arguing that most of these workers do so on a part-time basis as the report points out that 54 percent low-wage African American workers are full-time employees. This helps to explain another interesting statistic noted in the report: Black poverty has increased from 22.5 living below the poverty level in 2000 to 24.7 percent in 2005.

This is devastating data for those interested in Black economic development as Black workers are concentrated in industries that pay low wages and, consequently, show no potential for economic advancement. The economic pressure on low income families will only continue as immigration, legal and otherwise, pumps more workers into these sectors driving down wages and making work more scarce.

The combination of disproportionate concentration of Black workers in low-wage, unskilled work, coupled with increasing poverty rates could become the perfect storm that drives an irreversible wedge between African Americans and the larger labor market. Progressive thinkers and politicians with an eye toward 2008 and beyond should rise to the challenge presented by this report and come up with solutions that can make their way into law that reverse America's slide to a permanent caste of poor people. I emphasize "make their way into law" because too often good ideas are hatched without any real consideration as to whether or not it can pass through Congress and the White House. It's time for pragmatic progressive solutions to this and other intractable problems.

Michael K. Fauntroy, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the recently published book Republicans and the Black Vote.