“Ten years into welfare reform, caseloads may have decreased, but the number of people living in poverty has not,” Robert Wharton, the president and chief executive officer of the Community Economic Development Administration, wrote in a recent piece in the Chicago Sun-Times. “At the same time, the safety net of services and support that once protected the poor lies in tatters. Today, working parents in ill-paid jobs often work themselves right out of eligibility for desperately needed assistance.”
The complex interplay of race and class in the United States ensures that certain areas of domestic policy are suffused with racial bias, bear the imprint of a more frankly racist past, are prone to political manipulation, and serve as touchstones for galvanizing key elements of a racist consensus. Social welfare policy is one such area.
The crisis in America’s urban communities of color takes many shapes, but underlying these various manifestations are problems of economic segregation and persistent poverty. The emerging consensus among community leaders and advocates is that addressing lack of income and wealth must be at the top of the urban agenda.
In 1934 and 1935, hundreds of thousands of workers, left out of the tightly controlled, exclusive unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), began organizing in the new mass production industries—auto, rubber, packinghouse. The AFL could not ignore them, so it set up a Committee for Industrial Organization to organize these workers outside of craft lines, by industry, all workers in a plant belonging to one union. This Committee, headed by John Lewis, then broke away and became the CIO—the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Conventional wisdom holds that tensions between Black and Latino workers are on the rise as the two ethnic groups compete for the same low-wage service sector jobs in many of our nation’s big cities. But recent successful efforts by both groups of workers, to form unions and organize for pay increase and health insurance, show that workers and leaders from both communities are crossing racial lines to help improve the very jobs that they are supposed to be fighting over.