Black Atlantans Struggle To Stay In The Middle Class

Dec 8, 2011
Originally published on December 9, 2011 1:28 pm

There's no question that the Great Recession has meant hard times all around, but from 2007 to 2009, it sent black America into an economic tailspin.

According to the Pew Research Center, the median net worth — that's assets minus debts — of black households decreased by more than 50 percent from 2005 to 2009.

I traveled to Atlanta — a city that's virtually synonymous with the black middle class — to find out what those numbers mean in the lives of real people. I started in Fairburn, Ga., a cul-de-sac and two-car garage suburb just south of the city.

On one recent afternoon, half a dozen kids play football in the yard between two suburban houses. It's a seductive display of the American dream, and it explains how someone might buy a home with a loan they can't quite afford.

One of the kids running touchdowns on the lawn is 10-year-old Tyler Brittian. His parents, Teja and Eric, bought their Fairburn house for $155,000 six years ago. Three years later, their adjustable rate mortgage reset, and their monthly payment went up $200 to $1,400.

Then, the economy went south. Teja was a hairstylist, and business got so slow that she started losing money. Eric was an armed security guard for an IRS contractor. When his employer lost its contract, Eric lost his $40,000 a year job — now he works at Home Depot for about half that.

Like several of their neighbors, the Brittians fell behind on their mortgage and are currently facing foreclosure.

"We're not the only [ones]," Teja Brittian says. "If you actually go in the subdivision itself, there probably are a good five to eight [houses facing foreclosure]."

The Brittians got a reprieve from Bank of America after their senator, Saxby Chambliss, wrote to the bank on their behalf.

But what's at stake for them is not just a piece of property; it's the life they found for Tyler and his older sister.

"Their lives changed when we moved out here," Teja says.

Losing The Roof Over Your Head

The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that among recent borrowers, nearly 8 percent of both African-Americans and Latinos have lost their homes to foreclosure. (The rate for whites is 4.5 percent.) And losing a home is often a consequence of losing a job — as of Dec. 2, African-American unemployment is 15.5 percent, more than twice that of whites.

Nancy Flake Johnson, president of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, says the bad economy has been devastating for all blacks, including college graduates.

"We've lost a third of the black middle class," she says, citing a recent Urban League study.

Moreover, Flake Johnson says she sees a stunning feature of today's long-term unemployment.

"Homelessness," she says. "People that never in a million years thought that they would be without a roof over their heads — a lot of people are without a roof over their heads."

Many of those who have lost their homes do still have a roof over their heads, but the roof is often someone else's.

For 60-year-old Foster Smith, home is a room in his best friend Mark's house. It has a big closet where Smith can fit his entire tie collection — he has more than a hundred ties, accumulated over decades of working as a salesman — and he keeps his golf bag in the corner. They are symbols of the middle-class life he had obtained by selling jewelry for more than 20 years. He says he used to make $75,000 a year, but for the past six months he has had no work at all.

When Smith, who is divorced, could no longer pay the $1,100 rent on his old house, he moved in with his friend, who lives in a middle-class Atlanta suburb. And that location is important to Smith.

"It's a reminder of where you want to stay," he says. "I grew up in Montgomery, Ala., my mother was a single parent, and we lived in housing projects."

Smith recalls taking his son to visit Montgomery a few years ago and pointing out all the guys he had gone to high school and grade school with. When his son asked him why it mattered, Smith replied, "The point I'm trying to make here is they never left this place. This is what I came from, but this isn't where I want you to go."

Falling Back On Family

At 56, Okeema Garvin is living with her mother.

In 2004, she lost her job at Bell South, where she had worked for 20 years. In 2006, she went to work at a mortgage company, but lost that job two years later when the housing market collapsed. Garvin's husband retired on medical disability years ago, after a heart attack, so when she lost her last job, they walked away from the home they had owned for 20 years and moved in with Garvin's mother.

"This is the house that I grew up in, and I'm back in the bedroom that I left many years ago. I'm right back where I started from," Garvin says. "I never imagined that I would come back, not under these circumstances. But one thing I can say: I'm glad that I have a place to stay. I'm glad that she opened her door to us. Because otherwise, I don't know where we would have gone."

Garvin knows she isn't alone. She says that a couple of years back, the pastor at her church started asking anyone who is unemployed to stand up. At first, only one or two people stood up.

"Then as time went on, say maybe six months or a year later," Garvin says, "he would ask that question again, and you would see more people stand up. So it just became ... a regular thing."

'They've Got A Sniffle; We've Got Pneumonia'

Atlanta is a city where civil rights leaders are the namesakes of thoroughfares the way presidents and signers of the Declaration of Independence are in most other cities. There are boulevards named not just for Martin Luther King Jr. and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, but also for civil rights leaders Joseph Lowery and Ralph David Abernathy. Last year, Raymond Street was renamed SNCC Way, after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

But no place in Atlanta embodies the progression from the civil rights movement to political empowerment to economic development quite like the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The airport is named after the city's first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, who negotiated a unique deal for its construction.

"That airport was constructed with a mandate of having at least 25 percent of all of the subcontracting opportunities going to minorities and women," says Thomas "Danny" Boston, a Georgia Tech economist who studies minority businesses. "First time anything like that happened in the country."

It was a kind of New Deal for blacks in Atlanta, and it grew into many other deals, including mandated set-asides for African-American and other minority contractors and subcontractors.

But the deals also made minority business disproportionately dependent on public sector work. Now, the shrinking of the public sector is having a disastrous effect on many African-American business owners, including electrical subcontractor Melvin Griffin.

Griffin's business depended heavily on public contracts for things like installing stoplights with red-light cameras. Now he gets less work and, in turn, he gives less work.

"Employees are down quite a bit," he says. "Right now, I'm only working about three people. Couple guys, I just told them don't worry about calling me because I really got no work for them."

Compare that with five years ago, when Griffin says he had enough work to keep 25 employees busy. In a time of fewer contracts, bigger contractors are competing for jobs that used to look like small potatoes, making the competition for minority contractors like Griffin much tougher.

"I look at it like this," Griffin says of his big business competition. "They've got a sniffle; we've got pneumonia."

Combine all this with the loss of public sector jobs, where many blacks found security, and you get something worse than even a Great Recession.

But Geogia Tech economist Danny Boston says, despite all this, you don't hear a lot of public discourse about how bad things are for African-Americans in Atlanta. In a nationwide survey of small-business owners he conducted, African-Americans remained exceptionally optimistic.

"And that's even magnified when you come to Atlanta, because it's always operated on this sense of optimism, whether it was well-founded or not," Boston says. "I think that that keeps the discussion about how bad things really are from coming to the surface."

The Bittersweet Side

Atlanta also has bittersweet stories, told without complaint, about the work created by the absence of work and opportunities hatched from the absence of opportunity.

Foster Smith's lifelong friend bought the house they're now living in for a song — it had been foreclosed on.

Okeema Garvin briefly had a job collecting cable boxes from customers whose service was terminated.

And Melvin Griffin had done an electrical job for a local bank, rewiring a building it had unloaded in a bank sale — vandals had stripped the copper wire from the building while it sat vacant.

There is no denying that these are still hard times.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In this part of the program: the economic downturn of recent years and the black middle class. The recession sent black America into an economic tailspin. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2005 and 2009, the median net worth - that's assets minus debts - of black households fell by more than half. The net worth of the median white American household is now 20 times that of the median black household. What do numbers like those mean in the lives of real people?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

SIEGEL: Well, last week, I went to Atlanta, a city synonymous with the black middle class, to find out.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

SIEGEL: A half dozen kids playing football in the yard between two suburban homes in Fairburn, a suburb south of the city. All the homes in this cul-de-sac and in the entire subdivision have two-car garages. It is a scene so seductive, it explains how you might buy a home with a loan that's a little bit more than you can handle. One of the kids running touchdowns in the lawn is 10-year-old Tyler Brittian. His parents, Teja and Eric, bought a house here for $155,000 six years ago.

TEJA BRITTIAN: We were the first house in this entire phase.

ERIC BRITTIAN: Only house. It was just this one house and, whoa, it's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRITTIAN: When they gave us the blueprint, we could choose any lot because all the lots were available.

SIEGEL: Three years later, their adjustable-rate mortgage reset. Their monthly payment went up $200 to 1,400. And then, the economy went south. Teja was a hairstylist, and business got so slow, she was losing money. Eric was an armed security guard for a company that had a contract with the IRS. When it was re-bid, his employer lost that contract, and Eric lost his $40,000-a-year job. Now, he works at Home Depot for about half that. Like several of their neighbors, the Brittians fell behind on the mortgage and now face foreclosure.

BRITTIAN: We're not the only one. There are three, and they've been sitting there for quite a while. And that's just within a couple of houses. But if you actually go in the subdivision itself, there probably are a good five to eight.

SIEGEL: The Brittians got a reprieve from Bank of America after their senator, Saxby Chambliss, wrote the bank on their behalf. What's at stake for them is not just a piece of property. It's the life they've found for Tyler and his older sister.

BRITTIAN: Their lives changed when we moved out here. You could kind of look out there and Teja (unintelligible) I mean, there's all his friends. And I mean, it's like that all the time.

BRITTIAN: Yeah. It would probably be the hardest if we was to lose our home, how it would affect him, these are his friends. You know, it's all he know.

SIEGEL: The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that among recent borrowers nearly 8 percent of both African-Americans and Latinos have lost their homes to foreclosure. The rate for whites is four and a half percent. Losing a home is often a consequence of losing a job. And unemployment for African-Americans is over 15 and a half percent, more than twice the rate for whites. At the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, Rashid Brown teaches a course on how to look for job.

RASHID BROWN: Let's talk about this. Every time you all went to a career fair, they receive your resume, but what do they tell you to do?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Go online.

BROWN: Go online.

SIEGEL: Most of his students are African-Americans. They're in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They need a course, a road map through a new world of social media, where a resume is an attachment, and opportunities are to be mined by drilling down into job search engines.

BROWN: I send out Tweets like, hey, I got a person in my office who have a background in ABCDE, who do you know? And then, someone would tweet back and say, hey, Rashid, I know somebody over here who may have need of that skill set. You all see how this magic can happen as we're job searching as professionals, as you reintegrate and replacing ourselves back into the market?

SIEGEL: The head of the Atlanta Urban League, Nancy Flake Johnson, says the bad economy has been devastating for blacks, including college graduates.

NANCY FLAKE JOHNSON: We've lost a third of the black middle class.

SIEGEL: People who can no longer support themselves or their families. And Nancy Flake Johnson sees a stunning feature of today's long-term unemployment.

JOHNSON: Homelessness.

SIEGEL: Homelessness?

JOHNSON: Homelessness. People that never in a million years thought that they would be without a roof over their heads. A lot of people are without a roof over their heads.

SIEGEL: Many of those who have lost their homes do have a roof over their head, but the roof is someone else's. For 60-year-old Foster Smith, home is a room in his best friend Mark's house.

FOSTER SMITH: I have my own closet.

SIEGEL: It's a big closet.

SMITH: And you can tell from my tie collection, I'm used to working in a business environment, OK? That's my fetish, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: There's a lot of good ties.

SMITH: Actually, there's about another hundred in a box back there.

SIEGEL: Foster Smith spent decades in sales. He sold jewelry for over 20 years. He sold advertising space, and he sold men's clothing. He says he used to make $75,000 a year. For the past six months, he has had no work at all.

SMITH: Look over in the corner and tell me what you see.

SIEGEL: It's the golf bag with the clubs.

SMITH: Last time I've been out, July, August, and golfers don't like waiting that long.

SIEGEL: Tell me about it.

SMITH: You know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: ...OK.

SIEGEL: Smith is divorced. And when he could no longer pay $1,100 rent on a house, he moved in here. His friend's home is in a middle-class Atlanta suburb, and he says that's important.

SMITH: It's a reminder of where you want to stay. I've been there already. I want to stay there. You know, when I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, my mother was a single parent, and we lived in housing projects. And a few years ago, when my young son was about 10 years old, I went home to visit Montgomery, and I commented to my son: I went to high school with that guy. I was in the third grade with this guy. And he says to me: Yeah. I said, well, Steven, the point I'm trying to make is they never left this place. This is what I came from, but this isn't where I want you to go.

OKEEMA GARVIN: Hi.

SIEGEL: Hi.

GARVIN: I'm Okeema.

SIEGEL: Hi. I'm Robert. Okeema, hi. Nice to meet you.

GARVIN: Hi, Robert. Come on in. This is my mother.

SIEGEL: Hi. How do you do?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: How do you do? OK.

SIEGEL: Okeema Garvin now lives with her mother. She's 56. In 2004, she lost her job at Bell South, where she'd worked for 20 years. In 2006, she went to work at a mortgage company and lost that job two years later when the housing market collapsed. Her husband retired on medical disability years ago after a heart attack. So when she lost her job, they walked away from the home they'd owned for 20 years and moved in here.

GARVIN: This is the house that I grew up in, and I'm back in the bedroom that I left many years ago. I'm right back where I started from.

SIEGEL: So what's it like after all these years coming back to your bedroom...

GARVIN: Well...

SIEGEL: ...as a girl in your mother's house?

GARVIN: I never imagine that I would come back, not under these circumstances. But one thing I can say I'm glad that I have a place to stay. I'm glad that she opened her door to us because otherwise I don't know where we would have gone.

SIEGEL: Do you find that you have friends, relatives, neighbors in the same situation that you're in?

GARVIN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I remember a couple of years ago when my pastor at my church started asking if anyone in here is unemployed, please stand up. You will see one or two people stand up. And then, as time went on, say, maybe six months or a year later, he would ask that question again, and you would see more people stand up. So it just became to be a regular thing.

SIEGEL: Atlanta is a city where civil rights leaders are the namesakes of thoroughfares, the way presidents and signers of the Declaration of Independence are in most cities. There are boulevards named not just for Martin Luther King Jr. and King's ally, former Mayor Andrew Young, but also for Joseph Lowery and for Ralph David Abernathy. Last year, Raymond Street was renamed SNCC Way, after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But no place in Atlanta symbolizes the progression from civil rights to political empowerment to economic development like this place.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like to pre-board this aircraft. Flight 2238...

SIEGEL: Hartsfield Airport was renamed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International after the city's first African-American mayor, the late Maynard Jackson, negotiated a unique deal for its construction. Economist Thomas Danny Boston of Georgia Tech studies minority businesses.

DR. THOMAS DANNY BOSTON: That airport was constructed with the mandate of having at least 25 percent of all of the subcontracting opportunities going to minorities and women, the first time anything like that happened in the country.

SIEGEL: So the airport was kind of a local New Deal for...

BOSTON: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...blacks in Atlanta?

BOSTON: Absolutely. It was the deal.

SIEGEL: And it grew into many deals. Mandated set-asides for African-American and other minority contractors and subcontractors. They remain disproportionately dependent on public sector work.

Now, the public sector is shrinking and that has been disastrous for many African-American business owners like electrical subcontractor Melvin Griffin. The other night, Mr. Griffin was running his hands through the carpet at his church, checking for dampness.

MELVIN GRIFFIN: (Unintelligible) I don't see no water. I'll check again tomorrow.

SIEGEL: No water, but plenty of time on his hands. Melvin Griffin's business depended heavily on public contracts. For example, he helped install stoplights with red light cameras. Now, he gets less work and he gives less work.

GRIFFIN: Employees are down quite a bit. Right now I'm only working about three people. A couple of guys just told me don't worry about calling me because I really don't have any work for them, you know.

SIEGEL: Three people you can find work for?

GRIFFIN: Three people.

SIEGEL: And five years ago?

GRIFFIN: Five years ago, I had about 25 people.

SIEGEL: Twenty-five people?

GRIFFIN: Right.

SIEGEL: And, you know, since majority contractors have also been hit hard, but...

GRIFFIN: I mean - yeah. It's not just minority contractors, by all means, but at that same time, I always look at it like this. When they got a sniffle, we got pneumonia.

SIEGEL: In a time of fewer contracts, bigger contractors are competing for jobs that used to look like small potatoes. The competition for minority contractors like Melvin Griffin is much tougher.

Combine all of this with the loss of public sector jobs where many blacks found security and you get something worse than even a great recession.

But Danny Boston, the Georgia Tech economist, says despite all this, you don't hear a lot of public discourse about how bad things are for African-Americans in Atlanta. In a nationwide survey of small business owners he conducted, blacks remained exceptionally optimistic.

BOSTON: And that's even magnified when you come to Atlanta because it's always operated on this sense of optimism, whether it was well-founded or not, and so I think that that keeps the discussion about how bad things really are from coming to the surface.

SIEGEL: In Atlanta, I heard some bittersweet stories told without complaint about work created by the absence of work, opportunities hatched from the absence of opportunity. Foster Smith's lifelong friend bought the house they're now living in for a song. It had been foreclosed on.

Okeema Garvin briefly had a job doing piecework for the cable company. Her job was collecting cable boxes from customers whose service was terminated.

And the day that I met Melvin Griffin, he had done an electrical job for a local bank, rewiring a building it had unloaded in a bank sale. Vandals had stripped the copper wire from the building when it sat vacant.

These are still hard times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.