Many blacks in this country, the argument goes, can't get good jobs because they drop out of high school. Those who go to college, receive an education and take advantage of affirmative-action policies, continues the argument, have a better than even chance of hitting the upper-income brackets.
This view is still true, but to a much lesser extent than it was a decade ago. A new study, conducted for the Ford Foundation and the Rural Economic Policy Program of the Aspen Institute by me and Lucy Gorham, shows that since the late 1970s there has been a dramatic deterioration in the earnings of working African-Americans -- even for those with college decrees.
The Reagan legacy amounts to nothing less than the economic polarization of America. The rich got richer. The poor got poorer. And the hard-working middle class became more insecure than at any time since before World War II.
But people of color suffered most of all.
In 1979, one of three black workers in the United States earned poverty-level wages. By 1987, four of 10 were making that (inflation adjusted) wage -- roughly $12,000 for a family of four. During the same period, the share of African-American workers with earnings three times the poverty line fell, from 7.2 percent to 5.6 percent. Thus, the frequently mentioned increase in middle-class black employees who no longer need equal-opportunity protection is a myth.
The lot of African-American college graduates has deteriorated, as well. The number of well-educated black men receiving below-the-poverty-line wages grew faster than those earning more than $36,000, the study's high-earnings benchmark.
For college-educated black women, the 1980s were worse. Between 1979 and 1987, the number earning more than three times the poverty line declined by 10,000, despite a net addition to the American labor pool of 407,000 black women with at least four years of college education.
Not surprisingly, the situation for young black men was disastrous, especially among 25- to 34-year-olds, who might be expected to have settled down and begun careers. During the period studied, the number of men in that age group who were working but earning less than poverty wages increased by 161 )) percent.
The reasons are abundant. The devastation of many of the nation's basic manufacturing sectors -- steel, auto, etc. -- during the early 1980s hit black men especially hard. These industries produced jobs that offered a good living without the need for fancy educational credentials. The military had been another sure path to higher wages for people of color. But the new high-tech armed forces drastically increased entrance requirements, resulting in an immediate decline in the number and percentage of black recruits.
The cutbacks in the creation of good government jobs have also fallen especially hard on Americans of color. In the 1980s, the public sector either reduced hiring altogether or shifted from hiring permanent employees (with civil-service protection) to recruiting people into part-time or temporary schedules.
Finally, a series of administrative and U.S. Supreme Court decisions during the decade has made it increasingly difficult for the victims of racial and gender discrimination to seek -- let alone achieve -- justice effectively.
Affirmative action, ironically, is more important than ever when the number of "good jobs at good wages" being created in the American economy declines, while the low-wage work accompanying deindustrialization and corporate restructuring grows.
The deterioration in the earnings opportunities for black Americans who do work for a living is an unconscionable legacy of the politics and economics of the 1980s. It needs to be better understood. But most of all, it needs to be stopped.