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Why The Government Shutdown Has A Disproportionate Effect On African-Americans


For generations, government work has provided good wages and job security to African-Americans who may face discrimination in the private sector. And so as this shutdown enters its fourth week, it's disproportionately affecting black people and their families. Jamiles Lartey writes about this in The Guardian newspaper. Welcome.

JAMILES LARTEY: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Explain the history that led to our situation today where African-Americans make up a higher percentage of the federal workforce than they do in the private sector.

LARTEY: Right. So the federal government obviously has its sort of own untoward history of racial discrimination, you know, from underwriting redlining and federal mortgage programming and excluding blacks from New Deal programming. But it has also been kind of at the institutional vanguard of the nation's slow march towards equality, more so than the private sector at large and more than most state and local governments, and, for fairly obvious reasons, just did a better job of abiding by the Civil Rights Act than the labor market at large.

SHAPIRO: We know that black families have a fraction of the wealth of white families. According to the Census Bureau, for every $100 in white family wealth, black families have just over $5. So what does that mean when black government workers start missing a paycheck?

LARTEY: Right. I mean, that's exactly correct. The profound racial wealth gap in the U.S. makes it far more difficult for the average black American to sustain a long period without a paycheck as compared with a white American. And now, you know, we should pause to note that that disparity in wealth is probably much less acute among federal workers, right? We don't have numbers of, you know, black federal workers' wealth versus white federal workers' wealth. It's probably much closer than the broader disparity. But, you know, overall black Americans are less likely to have friends, family, networks, access to credit. You know, you name it. Things that will help you survive a period without a paycheck, they're less likely to have it.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about one of the workers you spoke with for this story.

LARTEY: Yeah. So I think, you know, the most compelling example that I found while I was reporting this story was a national parks ranger named Laura (ph), who I had spoken to last year during that shutdown. And at that time, she was hesitant to be identified in the story. And she was, you know, scared of maybe reprisals or, you know, superiors finding out that she had commented. And this time, you know, her frustration was just boiling over. And she asked me - directly she said, you know, please put my name on this. I want people to know what I'm going through. You know, she was frustrated. She was on the verge of tears when we spoke.

She was worried about her employees, worried about the contractors who work under her. And she you just described, you know, that she was barely treading water and, you know, was trying to figure out just how to pay for medication. She was dreading, you know, making the phone call to her landlord to say that she might not be able to pay rent. She described getting a call from her mother who said, you know, there's a bed here if you need it and just kind of, you know, becoming emotional - said, you know, I'm 50 years old. I can't go live with my parents.

SHAPIRO: And as tough as this is for government employees, they can at least expect to get backpay. Government contract workers may not. And you say that will also disproportionately affect black business owners. How so?

LARTEY: Yeah, actually much more so. And so that's the next thing that I think we ought to look at. Unlike federal employees, there's no precedent for government contractors to receive backpay when the shutdown ends. And so that income is just gone. And, you know, black firms - black-owned firms comprise just 2 percent of all small businesses in the country, but they make up 11.7 percent of registered federal contractors. So, you know, I say that with the caveat of we don't know exactly how that trickles down to folks' wages. But, by and large, you know, black-owned firms are going to be hit harder by the shutdown.

SHAPIRO: Jamiles Lartey, thanks so much.

LARTEY: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: He's a reporter for The Guardian newspaper.