Government Downsizing Threatens Growth of Black Middle Class

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: August 1, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The growth of the black middle class -- achieved primarily through public-sector employment -- is threatened by downsizing at all levels of government, a study by a University at Buffalo sociologist has concluded.

"Half of all middle-class blacks are public-sector employees," said Robert Boyd, UB assistant professor of sociology and author of the study, to be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Sociological Focus. "It's no coincidence that the expansion of the black middle class and the growth of government both occurred during the past 30 years.

"These days it's become fashionable politically to talk about 'downsizing' or 'reinventing' government," Boyd said. "It used to be the Republicans talking about reducing the size of government. Now Democrats and Independents have joined in. It's going to depress public-sector employment, which will have serious implications for the social mobility of blacks.

"Public-sector employment has provided the greatest opportunity for upward mobility for blacks. But unless alternative routes for upward mobility are created, the black middle class won't grow as much as we've seen it grow during the past three decades," he said.

Boyd examined 16,549 black workers from 52 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) to determine how the attributes of individuals and the structural characteristics of labor markets channel black workers into public-sector jobs. His analysis included such variables as human capital, gender, citizenship, geographic region, and most importantly, the relative size of the black population -- percent black -- and black-white residential segregation.

The study is, in fact, the first to consider the impact of residential segregation on black employment, and the first to examine the effects of segregation and percent black simultaneously.

It found that, controlling for other factors, the odds of black employment in the public sector are highest in metropolitan areas that have a large black population and relatively low levels of residential segregation. A 1 percent increase in percent black was associated with a 6 percent increase in the odds that a black worker will be a federal employee rather than a private-sector employee, and a 2 percent increase in the odds of state-local employment, Boyd determined.

A one-unit increase in the index of residential segregation -- the percentage of one group that would have to relocate in order for a census tract to have the same racial composition as the entire metropolitan area -- decreases a black worker's odds of federal employment by 5 percent and state-local employment by 0.4 percent.

Boyd said the size of the black population seems to be the most important variable in determining the odds of public-sector employment. That's why metro areas with large black populations that are highly segregated, such as Detroit or Chicago, have large numbers of black public-sector workers. The percent black variable essentially cancels out the negative effect of the residential segregation variable, he said.

"A relatively large black population influences whether the public sector hires blacks in large numbers," he said. "Blacks have political clout as a special-interest group with a large number of potential votes. Private companies are not trying to get votes in the same sense that politicians are. The public sector is an area of the economy where special-interest groups have the most influence."

But when public-sector employment stagnates due to tough economic times -- as it is now in many parts of the country -- it becomes more difficult for blacks to substitute private-sector jobs for those that are lost in the public sector, Boyd noted.

Private employers are less likely than public-sector employers to conscientiously abide by government policies that promote racial equality in the hiring and promotion processes, he said.

Moreover, the loss of better-paying, entry-level jobs in manufacturing has greatly limited the job prospects of less-educated blacks, while massive layoffs of white-collar workers by large corporations may have shrunk the opportunities in private-sector managerial jobs for better-educated blacks, he added.

In addition, entrepreneurship -- an avenue for upward mobility typically pursued by Asian Americans -- has not historically been a route followed by African Americans, he said.

"There are still a lot of good jobs in the public sector, especially in the Northeast, he said. "But the jobs will be disappearing; I don't see it really going in any other direction. Over time, public-sector employment won't get larger, but it may get smaller. Blacks will be faced with this possibility of slower growth of the middle class and professional class," he said.

"While there are some advantages to being tied to the public sector, I think there won't be as many advantages in the future, and there will be some disadvantages in places with shrinking economic bases.

"In light of these trends," Boyd said, "the challenge to public policy would be to retain the opportunity for employment for blacks in the public sector, while simultaneously promoting the opportunity in the private sector -- in entrepreneurship as well as wage-salary employment."