In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a message of hope – which, for obvious reasons, had a special resonance for black Americans. So, six years into the Obama Presidency, how have things improved for them?
The answer is that they haven’t. Quite the opposite. In an article for the Financial Times, Edward Luce sets out some remarkable facts:
“African-American wealth has fallen further under Barack Obama than under any president since the Depression…
“Since 2009, median non-white household income has dropped by almost a 10th to $33,000 a year, according to the US Federal Reserve’s survey of consumer finances…”
To some extent, this is a function of an economy that’s been terrible for most Americans, regardless of race. However, it does appear that non-whites have done particularly badly:
“As a whole, median incomes fell by 5 per cent. But by the more telling measure of net wealth – assets minus liabilities – the numbers offer a more troubling story.
“The median non-white family today has a net worth of just $18,100 – almost a fifth lower than it was when Mr Obama took office. White median wealth, on the other hand, has inched up by 1 per cent to $142,000. In 2009, white households were seven times richer than their black counterparts. That gap is now eightfold. Both in relative and absolute terms, blacks are doing worse under Mr Obama.”
Luce doesn’t mention the fact that, under President Obama, a staggering 95 per cent of all the income gains accrued since the US economy returned to growth have gone to the richest one per cent of households. So could the expanding fortunes of white billionaires be skewing the figures?
The answer to that is no, because median measures of household income and wealth aren’t directly affected by what happens among the super-rich. There’s no getting around the fact that in ordinary, everyday America, black Americans are falling behind.
The author is at pains not to blame the President. Indeed, he argues that without him, black Americans would be doing even worse:
“He has fought Congress to preserve food stamps and long-term unemployment insurance – both of which help blacks disproportionately. The number of Americans without health insurance has fallen by 8m since the Affordable Care Act came into effect.”
As welcome as this extra help might be for low-income households in tough times, one has to ask what the Obama administration has done to fundamentally transform the prospects of the poorest Americans (a category in which non-whites are disproportionately represented)?
With some justification, Luce blames Republican obstruction for the lack of progress; but Obama has also missed opportunities to build bridges. For instance, a serious attempt to promote marriage could make a real difference to the life chances of the poor and would attract bipartisan support. As a Democrat, an African-American and the child of divorced parents, the President would have been in a powerful position to make a positive case for stable family structures where they matter most.
Unfortunately, the Democrats can afford to be complacent. The comprehensive failure of the Republicans to reach out in any meaningful way has left black American voters with nowhere else to go.
America could do with a dose of proper multi-party politics (and, no, the ‘Tea Party’ doesn’t count). When the big parties fail to do anything for marginalised communities, democracy is well-served if popular anger can be clearly expressed at the ballot box.
It’s a punishment that our own politicians richly deserve (and are now getting) – and one long overdue for their American counterparts.