This material was published by the Center for American Progress.
This issue brief is a product of CAP’s National Advisory Council on Eliminating the Black-White Wealth Gap.
Public sector work has been a rare source of opportunity and security for African Americans in the U.S. economy for generations. Employment with numerous federal, state, and local government agencies throughout the 20th century not only offered a leg up to millions of Black families, but also became so identified with a path to the middle class that they hold cultural significance to many Black Americans. Government jobs alone, obviously, cannot solve structural racism. But in an economy where structural racism denies Black workers economic opportunities and economic security—which has amplified the racial wealth gap throughout U.S. history and today—public work has a long tradition of benefiting many Black families who serve their communities. Whether in the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which has a legacy of anti-racist hiring dating back to Reconstruction; the military, which led the public and private sector in integration; the federal civil service; or state and local governments, public sector jobs have offered a refuge from employment discrimination all too common in the private sector.
Today, nearly 1 in 5 Black workers are employed in the public sector.1 At a time when the American public and policymakers, from school boards all the way to the Federal Reserve, are more engaged in addressing the legacies of structural racism, the federal government must not undermine one of the islands of economic stability Black families have built. Yet for the second time in a decade, the USPS, along with thousands of state and local governments across the country, is facing large, but mostly temporary, budget gaps due to a deep recession. Amid a lack of federal help, these public entities are all looking to reduce budgets by cutting jobs and the crucial services they provide to communities.
Threats to the future of not just the USPS and state and local governments but also to school districts, public utilities, and public transportation agencies—as well as barriers to public workers’ right to unionize—all conspire to undermine economic stability for millions of Black workers, their families, and their communities. Public sector work is especially important to Black families who lack wealth because these jobs provide decent pay, strong health care and retirement security, and job stability, which buffer against economic fragility in ways similar to the role wealth plays for Americans who have it. Moreover, public sector jobs have been disproportionately important to Black families as a means of reaching the middle class and building both wealth and economic stability. Decades of organizing by African Americans and allies in the labor movement as well as many of the more than 90,000 federal, state, and local governments in America2 have made a way for Black workers to build personal economic security while serving their communities. Sitting idly by as these jobs disappear will have negative impacts on the very same communities hit hardest by the coronavirus and the deep economic recession—not just in the near term but for years to come.