The recent Rally for Justice and Black Work Matters events highlighted that our country’s legacy of racism continues today to impact people of color economically in a tremendously disproportionate way. Philadelphia is struggling with the economic change from a major manufacturing center to a service sector economy. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States with the highest rates of incarceration, infant mortality, and deep poverty of any of the ten largest cities in America. Living with less forces inhumane decisions on people who have to decide between food or paying the rent and creating life long insecurities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 359,000 manufacturing workers employed throughout the city. Today there are only 21,000. The factories first moved to the much more segregated suburbs. William Levitt, who built Levittown to house the workers of the U.S. Steel Company. wrote a letter to the NAACP explaining that the houses he built would only be sold to white families. North Philly and Kensington alone lost about 300,000 jobs between 1950 and 1980. The combination of racial and economic segregation left many African American neighborhoods stranded. Today these areas have become “food deserts” and a major source of people entering the pipeline to mass incarceration.
Data from the Pew Report and the US Census indicate that Philadelphia has the second highest rate of working age adults who have dropped out of the work force. In some neighborhoods, 70% of adults are not working. While Philadelphia’s official unemployment rate stands at 6.03%, only 52% of adults in the city actually have a job. Of the families surviving on less than $10.000 a year, 57% are African American. Finding few opportunities in the mainstream economy, many end up convicted for involvement in the drug trade. In a country that already distinguishes itself by locking up more of its citizens than any other nation on earth, Philadelphia stands out with the highest incarceration rate of any major city in America. Incarceration obscures the underlying problem of chronic unemployment because the official count of unemployed workers does not reflect the thousands of working age Philadelphians who are imprisoned and thereby removed from the labor force.
According to a Pew report, for every job lost in manufacturing over the past 10 years, Philadelphia has gained a job in the hospitality sector. And here unions have made a difference While non unionized housekeepers wages have been stagnate or declined over the past few years, unionized housekeepers have seen their salaries rise 4 %. Union food attendants at the Phillies Ballpark make 55% more than the average food worker. While it may not be possible to bring back the jobs that have gone abroad, union hospitality workers are making real progress eliminating poverty wages from the service industry.
By supporting service workers who are fighting to improve their jobs in the service industry, we can create equitable economic growth, pull thousands out of poverty, and create a better city for all of us. Thank you to the Old Firsters who showed their support through their presence at the Rally for Justice and Black Work Matters program.