How Secure is Today’s Black Middle Class?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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By a variety of measures, the American middle class is economically stressed and insecure. How insecure is today’s black middle class specifically? Dëmos finds a third of the black middle class at risk of falling out of the middle class. The Pew Research Center finds roughly similar levels of economic insecurity among the black middle class.

“Middle class” is actually a squishy concept. There are many ways that people define middle class. For example, the Black Directions report on the black middle class compares seven different ways of defining the middle-class-ness. Who is in the middle class and how large it is depends on how one defines it.

The Pew Research Center simply asked respondents to declare whether or not they were middle class. When one does this half of black adults say that they are middle class. This seems like a high percentage when one considers that about half of white adults also declare themselves to be middle class.

Isn’t the white middle class larger than the black middle class?

The key issue again is how one defines middle class. If one looks at the median family income of blacks and whites who say that they are middle class, the black median is nearly $10,000 less than the white median. By a subjective measure, the Pew data indicates that the black middle class is the same size as the white middle class. An objective, income-based definition of “middle class” could yield a black “middle class” that is smaller than the white “middle class.” Eight percent more whites than blacks say they are upper class however, and ten percent more blacks than whites say that they are lower class.

Source: The Pew Research Center.

From 24 to 40 percent of middle-class blacks are economically insecure depending on the measure. In the Pew survey, 24 percent of middle-class blacks struggle to meet expenses. Twenty-four percent are also afraid that they may face wage cuts or lose benefits in the coming year. Thirty percent are worried that they might lose their job. Forty percent experienced two or more financial difficulties in the past year (i.e., they could not pay bills, could not save or had to cut spending).

Dëmos has assessed the financial security of the black middle class using objective measures. They examined households making two to six times the poverty level (roughly $40,000 to $120,000 for a family of four). The head of the households had to be between 25 to 64 years old and not have more than $500,000 in assets.

Dëmos also defined specific criteria for being “financially secure,” “financially at-risk” and in-between. This “middle class security index” has specific asset levels, educational achievement, housing expenses, living expenses, and health insurance coverage to place households in one of the three categories. According to the Dëmos’ index, a third of the black middle class are at high risk for slipping out of the middle class.

It is now clear that the project of black socioeconomic advancement has at least three parts: (1) poverty reduction, (2) upward mobility and (3) securing the black middle class. The assumption had been that while the black middle class did not have as high incomes and were not as wealthy as the white middle class, they had nonetheless “made it.” New research suggests that for too many in the black middle class being middle class is merely a stop on the way to poverty.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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