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Image: Deborah Goldring
Steve Ruark  /  AP
"Just being able to pull out my checkbook and pay a bill, even though there might not be much left in there," Deborah Goldring says, of her hard times. "I really miss that checkbook with my name on it."
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updated 7/12/2011 11:56:31 AM ET 2011-07-12T15:56:31

Growing up black in the segregated 1960s, Deborah Goldring slept two to a bed, got evicted from apartment after apartment, and watched her stepfather climb utility poles to turn their disconnected lights back on. Yet Goldring pulled herself out of poverty and earned a middle-class life — until the Great Recession.

First, Goldring's husband fell ill, and they drained savings to pay for nursing homes before he died. Then Goldring lost her executive assistant job in the Baltimore hospital where she had worked for 17 years. The cruelest blow was a letter from the bank, intending to foreclose on her home of almost three decades.

Millions of Americans endured similar financial calamities in the recession. But for Goldring and many others in the black community, where unemployment is still rising, job loss has knocked them out of the middle class and back into poverty. Some even see a historic reversal of hard-won economic gains that took black people decades to achieve.

Goldring remembers her mother taping the blinds to the wall so no one could see them stealing electricity. She remembers each time she sat on the curb with her three brothers, surrounded by her family's belongings, waiting for a new place to live. Sitting on those curbs, she promised to always pay her bills on time.

Now, after finding herself poor again, "the only word I can say is devastated," says Goldring, 58.

"For me to live that life we were so comfortable in, we never had to worry about finances, we always had money where I can help my kids and my grandchildren — to go to calling my daughter to borrow $100 because I can't pay a bill ..." Goldring's voice trails off as she struggles to hold back tears.

Economists say the Great Recession lasted from 2007 to 2009. In 2004, the median net worth of white households was $134,280, compared with $13,450 for black households, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Economic Policy Institute. By 2009, the median net worth for white households had fallen 24 percent to $97,860; the median black net worth had fallen 83 percent to $2,170, according to the EPI.

Algernon Austin, director of the EPI's Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, described the current wealth gap this way: "In 2009, for every dollar of wealth the average white household had, black households only had two cents."

Since the end of the recession, the overall unemployment rate has fallen from 9.4 to 9.1 percent, while the black unemployment rate has risen from 14.7 to 16.2 percent, according to the Department of Labor.

"I would say the recession is not over for black folks," Austin says. He believes more black people than ever before could fall out of the middle class, because the unemployment rate for college-educated blacks recently peaked and blacks are overrepresented in state and local government jobs that are being eliminated due to massive budget shortfalls.

Maya Wiley, director of the Center for Social Inclusion, says the anti-discrimination laws passed in the 1960s took decades to translate into an increase in black economic security — and that was before the recession.

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"History is going to say that the black middle class was decimated" over the past few years, Wiley says. "But we're not done writing history."

Cleaning hotel rooms
Goldring was born and raised in Baltimore, and her mother was single for much of Goldring's childhood. At 16, she dropped out of school and went to work cleaning hotel rooms.

"That's when I first met white people. Some of them would stay a month at the hotel. They would have all their children with them," she remembers. "I thought, one day I'd like to hang out at a hotel."

She didn't know any middle-class people in her all-black neighborhood. "Where we lived, everyone struggled. We just struggled a little harder," she says. "If the lights stayed on for a whole year, if we didn't get put out, I thought we were doing really, really well."

At 21, pregnant with her second child, Goldring decided to get her GED. Then she went to community college, got a degree in secretarial work, and began a career.

She met her husband in 1983. He had a steady job as a heating and air-conditioning installer, and owned a brick two-bedroom home in Morgan Park, a leafy, integrated neighborhood.

With two incomes, money was not a problem. He liked to travel. She had never been out of Maryland.

"I thought, 'Is this how rich people live?'" Goldring remembers. "From where I was to where I ended up, it was way different."

Her husband had been married before. As a condition of the divorce, his daughter's name was added to the deed of the house. After Goldring's husband died in 2007, Goldring took out a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, with a 6.5 percent interest rate, to purchase the house outright.

Everything was fine until her hospital "restructured" in 2009. Her boss, a senior vice president, was transferred to the corporate office. Executives were now sharing secretaries. A few months later, they let Goldring go.

No more family vacations. No more trips to the mall. No more filling the grocery cart.

But what Goldring misses the most is her checkbook. Her unemployment payments arrive on a debit card.

"Just being able to pull out my checkbook and pay a bill, even though there might not be much left in there," she says. "I really miss that checkbook with my name on it."

Spike in unemployment
Last April, black male unemployment hit the highest rate since the government began keeping track in 1972. Only 56.9 percent of black men over age 20 were working, compared with 68.1 percent of white men.

Chris Wilder, a Philadelphia journalist, lost his job in 2008 as the media industry suffered huge losses. Unemployment benefits amounted to about one-third of his salary. Ever since they ran out, his income has been near zero, other than sporadic freelance work.

If not for a policy in his apartment co-op to assist people who lose their jobs, "I might be living with my mother," he says.

He has felt depression and anxiety. He's gone from a six-figure salary to having to check his balance before using his bank card. "I miss being able to go into a store and go off budget," he says. "Now, when I go to shop for something, I have to stick to exactly what I came to get. I never have money to buy anything else."

Wilder, 43, grew up solidly middle class, the son of a newspaper editor and a college administrator. Now the single parent of a 15-year-old, he has managed to keep his son in cleats and baseball camps, but thoughts of dying poor have crept into his mind. All of his savings are gone.

"It's definitely harder for black people to get jobs," Wilder says. "With the economy as bad as it is, people are hiring nephews and family friends and friends of friends. It's hard for black people to break that cycle. We don't own or even run the big companies."

"It's hard to keep jobs as well, because they're gonna 'last hired/first fired' you," he adds.

Wilder isn't giving up on finding a job in his field, "but I should."

"I call everyone. I send resumes. It is extremely rare that I get a call back," he says. "When I was growing up, I never imagined there would be a time when I was out of work for three years."

College-educated blacks fared worse than their white counterparts in the recession. In 2007, unemployment for college-educated whites was 1.8 percent; for college-educated blacks it was 2.7 percent. Now, the college-educated unemployment rate is 3.9 percent for whites and 7 percent for blacks.

"I've definitely played by the rules," Wilder says.

He's not desperate enough to break the law, but "I see why people become drug dealers."

Becoming a drug dealer
Horace Davis did become a drug dealer. He illustrates another dimension of the recession's impact on blacks: While law-abiding folks are falling out of the middle class, those who got in trouble with the law are further than ever from a second chance.

After serving four years for drug trafficking, Davis walked out of prison into the middle of the recession in 2008. "I thought to myself, I'm older, I need to get a job, move on. The dope game was dead to me," Davis says, sitting on a concrete porch in an Asheville, N.C., housing project.

In the past few decades of the "War on Drugs," harsh drug sentencing laws have sent a disproportionate number of black people to prison, even though blacks are not more likely than whites to sell or use drugs, according to a 2008 report by the Sentencing Project. Today, about 280,000 African-Americans exit prison each year. They are often the last of the last to be hired.

After Davis got out, he spent months applying for dozens of jobs mopping floors or flipping burgers. He carried a letter from the state offering a $2,500 tax credit for hiring ex-offenders. He got one call back, from a chicken restaurant. "We'll be in touch," Davis remembers them saying. They weren't.

"Nobody wants black felons in their businesses," says Davis, 26.

A 2003 University of Chicago study by Devah Pager sent young white and black "testers" to apply for real low-wage jobs. Some of the testers were randomly assigned felony convictions. The study found that whites with felonies were slightly more likely to get callbacks than black applicants without criminal records.

"The penalty of a criminal record is more disabling for black job seekers than whites," Pager and other researchers wrote in a follow-up study in 2009.

Davis says he learned skills in prison: "How to cook, clean, horticulture, janitorial. I can do it. I've been trained. Tile, carpentry, mortar, edging and trimming, all that. I can operate a backhoe, a roller. Any opportunity to do something that would show my talents, I'd do it. It would be my ticket out the streets.

"I just need someone to give me that chance. A nice construction job, anything. I would hold onto that until I die."

Some economists say the real black unemployment rate is as high as 25 or 30 percent, because government figures don't count "discouraged" workers who have stopped looking for jobs and dropped out of the labor force.

Davis now falls into that category — partly due to societal forces and partly, he knows, because of his own bad decisions.

Recently, police said they caught Davis with a half-ounce of marijuana. His trial date is approaching. As a habitual felon, he could get a 10-year sentence.

Bitter irony
Some see a bitter irony in soaring black unemployment and the decline of the black middle class on the watch of the first black president.

"I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone," Princeton professor Cornel West told truthdig.com recently.

He said Obama had sold out the poor and become "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats ... I don't think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama."

Yet many jobless blacks do not blame their plight on the president.

"I have no problem with Obama when I look at what the alternatives are," Wilder says.

Goldring doesn't think Obama is doing a bad job either. "The unemployment situation is not the best, but I don't think it has a lot to do with him," she says. "Fixing this economy, it's going to take time.

Wiley, the Center for Social Inclusion director, says Obama should be applauded for several initiatives that have helped the black middle class, such as programs to modify certain mortgages and forestall foreclosure due to job loss.

She would have liked Obama to aggressively counter the suggestion that first black president would be showing favoritism if he specifically helped black people.

"It's the right thing to do for the nation," she says. "Black people are a huge segment of the population, they're especially hard-hit, and the country cannot recover if the black community — as well as the white community and others — does not recover."

Homeownership hits record
Black homeownership hit an all-time high in 2004, with 50 percent of African-Americans owning their homes, according to census data.

Today, the black homeownership rate is 45 percent, compared with 74 percent for whites. Nearly 8 percent of African-Americans who bought homes from 2005-2008 have lost them to foreclosure, compared with 4.5 percent of whites, according to an estimate by the Center for Responsible Lending.

Goldring remembers that when she got a foreclosure notice from the bank, "I bawled."

Her son, Chris Fredericks, says she was "vulnerable, more than I have ever seen her, but she still kept moving."

He was incredulous that his mother was in such a position. "At any point, you can slip back. It's just the way the economy is going," he says. "Once you get into a spiral, there's no telling how far down you could go."

One day, at a counseling session on how to prevent foreclosure, Goldring learned about a new Maryland program that offered help to people who were behind on their mortgages due to layoffs or medical bills.

She thought it was too good to be true. It wasn't.

The Emergency Mortgage Assistance program, financed by federal money, offered a zero-interest loan of up to $50,000. The money would pay off up to a year of back mortgage payments, plus up to two years of regular payments. All Goldring had to do was pay 31 percent of her current gross income, or the full mortgage payment if she got a new job close to her original salary.

Story: Black workers' crisis may linger after upturn

And so on a sweltering June day, Goldring stood before a podium in her freshly mulched back yard, flanked by a congressman, the mayor, the lieutenant governor, and other officials. The sound of chirping birds filled the air. Cameras rolled as the dignitaries told Goldring's story, using her as an example to spread word of the Emergency Mortgage Program to other struggling homeowners.

"I want to thank you for your courage," said the lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown.

"I know you did everything right," Brown said. "You worked hard, you saved diligently, but challenges never overtaking our will sometimes overtake our wallets."

Goldring stood in front of the microphone and exhaled.

"After this," she said, "the only good thing would be to be employed, once again."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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