The hot economy across the U.S. has resulted in unprecedented levels of employment in the black community. Mississippi, which has the highest percentage of blacks in the country, is no exception.
But legislative and business leaders say that while progress has been made, many blacks still lack access to health care and adequate pay to support their families.
“There are certainly numerous pockets of prosperity,” said state Sen. John Horhn of Jackson, who has served on the Senate’s Economic Development Committee. “However, the overall economic condition of the black community remains disappointing and very far behind what the larger community’s prosperity is.”
While welfare reform has drastically reduced the numbers of people on welfare, Horhn said the state has no interest in doing any serious tracking of people who have gone off welfare.
“All they are doing at present is playing a number’s game,” he said. “They can’t really tell you what is happening to folks. They can only tell you the numbers are down. The anecdotal information we’re hearing is that many of them are having to depend more on extended families to make ends meet. A lot of them have found work, but it is work that doesn’t put them any better off than they were under the welfare system. So, you’ve got a number of people who are in minimum wage jobs who are barely making ends meet the same as when they were under the welfare system.”
In the past several years legislation has been introduced to require the Department of Human Services (DHS) to track former welfare clients to find out how they are faring. Those attempts were defeated.
The availability of services such as child care and adequate transportation to work are critical issues as is adequate job training.
Horhn said the quality of education that black people receive will be the determining factor as to whether they sink or swim. He said it is imperative that they have basic skills to begin with, and then advanced training in a skill that will bring in more income than minimum wage.
“The black community is a microcosm of the community at large,” Horhn said. “What I mean by that is you have these pockets of prosperity where individuals are excelling in professions.They are becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists and entrepreneurs, high-achieving wage earners and professional people. At the same time, there are these broad pockets where you find people don’t have that kind of training and don’t have that kind of education. Without it, they end up sinking farther and farther behind.”
A report published recently by the National Urban League called “The State of Black America 1999” concludes that the current strong economy has led to unprecedented levels of employment for black Americans. But in key areas such as the level of education, access to health care and incarceration rates, blacks continue to lag behind whites.
Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League, said that while significant progress has been made thanks to a strong economy, major obstacles are presented by institutions in this country.
“Income gaps still persist, and our children still trail academically,” Price said. “Institutional racism is embedded in the way we staff the schools. Suburban schools aren’t filled with unqualified teachers. You find more in the heart of the inner-city. Look at the physical conditions of schools. Where are the computers?”
LeRoy Walker, Jr., who owns 14 McDonalds in the metro Jackson area, agrees that the playing field is still not level. He said banks are still not always amenable to providing adequate financing for black businesses, and he also believes the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) needs to do more to help the black community bridge economic gaps.
“Some changes have been made that I am aware of, but there is so much red tape,” Walker said. “We are still not able to meet the needs economically for African Americans in Mississippi. Black America wants the same things white America has. We just have so much further to go.”
Walker said that African Americans want to be able to achieve on their own merits. But they often lack the extra push such as an inheritance or the networking relationships that often benefit white business owners.
“We have not been afforded that same position,” Walker said. “That’s not the fault of white Americans. It is just now that we have to have first-generation owners and presidents of companies who are willing to give back to their communities. It takes a long time to build prosperity. We as African Americans need some successes. And those successes will build character in other individuals wherein they can start their businesses or become credit worthy.”
Walker said the bragging about welfare rolls in Mississippi declining drastically is a farce, “smoke and mirrors.” He said he feels that way because the people who have been taken off welfare have only been able to get minimum wage jobs with no access to health insurance and health care. That means many are worse off than under the welfare system that afforded them health care.
“Let’s create some model so they can earn enough to afford health insurance, and so they can give to their children the medical needs they justly deserve,” Walker said. “We need a vehicle to fix that. I don’t have answers to that. But, as an employer, I would love every one of my employees, full-time and part-time, to have health care benefits. But it is too expensive for an employer to absorb on the profit-and-loss statement.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.