For Cheryl Monroe and generations of other African-Americans, federal government jobs have long been a path to the middle class and a way to provide a comfortable life for their families.
Then the record-long government shutdown hit, making it hard for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration chemist from Detroit to pay her mortgage.
“People say ‘save for a rainy day’ and you’re always saving, but when there is no check, that’s a hurricane not a rainy day,” Monroe said.
The shutdown that ended Friday left an especially painful toll for African-Americans who make up nearly 20 percent of the federal workforce and historically have been on the low end of the government pay scale.
The federal government played an important role in the building of the black middle class in the United States, giving African-Americans job opportunities that weren’t always available in the private sector. It started during World War II and the post-war years when the need for manpower was great as large numbers of whites were in military-related or war-production jobs.
These jobs offered African-Americans a chance to reach for a “slice of the American dream,” said Frederick Gooding Jr., African-American studies professor at Texas Christian University and author of the recently published “American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C., 1941-1981.”
“One of the pull factors was a good government job had stable pay, higher pay and benefits in contrast to domestic jobs and tough industrial jobs,” Gooding said. “After the war ended, the federal government really started to take a look at what it should do because many of those black workers were still there.”
Gooding said the federal Office of Price Administration — which helped regulate the economy — made sure opportunities were provided for blacks in federal government. Many also found jobs in the Postal Service, Defense Department and general printing office, but the work still primarily involved manual labor and “many failed to reach high pay,” Gooding said.
“In my experience, there are far fewer African-Americans in the higher grades,” said Monroe, who began her federal employment in 1987 with the IRS and is a chapter president with the National Treasury Employees union. “White people have the more lucrative jobs in the government. They are able to save, able to put money away for six months or a year’s worth of salary. It’s harder for black people. We’re always starting at the bottom.”
The challenges for black workers at the federal level mirror the wage gap in the broader economy. The median black income in 2017 was $40,258 for black households, compared with $65,273 for their white counterparts, according to the Census Bureau.
Experts say the wage gap put black federal workers at a particular disadvantage during the shutdown.
“African-Americans, despite the opportunities, have generally not had all of the opportunities that whites have had and tend to be more concentrated in the bottom half of the federal workforce and are the most vulnerable to be hurt in a shutdown situation,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor history professor at Georgetown University.
The Rev. Tia Coulter of Greenbelt, Maryland, earned $15,000 a year when she first started working for the federal government in the 1990s. She worked her way up to a program support assistant job with the Security and Exchange Commission but admitted this week that she was “struggling,” having already gone without one paycheck and with another now coming late.
“I’m happy to be going back to work with the possibility of getting paid,” she said Friday. “That being said, I am also leery of the upcoming months and what will happen on or after Feb. 15. I am hoping that some kind of plan will be put in place so that when these three weeks are up we continue working.”
Of the approximate 2.1 million federal executive branch employees in 2017, about 37 percent were ethnic minorities, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. African-Americans made up 18.2 percent of the workforce, compared with 9 percent for Hispanics. Data listed 63 percent as white.
Those numbers do not include postal workers and members of the U.S. intelligence services.
In 2017, whites made up about 78 percent of the overall U.S. workforce , according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Blacks comprised 13 percent.
Gary Morton, 58, of Philadelphia, started working for the federal government in 1981 with the IRS and has been with the EPA since 1992. He now works in the Land and Chemicals division and has missed out on more than $4,000 in pay since the start of the shutdown.
Morton cut back on expenses and unnecessary purchases when the shutdown started.
“I’m really trying to buy only the basic necessities, food, pay my utility bill, still pay my church tithes,” said Morton, who is African-American and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238. “I’m cooking more. I won’t go to McDonalds and buy a $3 milkshake when I can get (a carton of) ice cream for $2.50. I carry a case of water in the car now instead of pulling over for a $2 beverage.”
Coulter, who is black, said the shutdown has opened the eyes of many people relying on a government paycheck that’s becoming less of a sure thing during constant gridlock in Congress. Coulter said she’s looking at a less expensive place to live and thinking about a second source of income.
“I need to think about the savings aspect in the long run and prepare for another storm,” she said, referring to the shutdown. “Not all black families were taught about budgeting and money. This for me is like a lightbulb going on. I have to get my financial house in order.”