Minnesota's black middle class is shrinking

Black middle class
Erica Kantola, left, an enrollment services specialist at Inver Hills Community College, answers a question from student Sandie Sadler, right, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012 at the college in Inver Grove Heights. At center is Kantola's colleague Lupe Loredo.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Erica Kantola considers herself part of the middle class, even though she has a modest income.

But for Kantola, an enrollment services specialist at Inver Hills Community College in the Twin Cities, her status has less to do with how much money she makes than what she can do with it.

"I do own a home and I do have the opportunity to provide hockey for my son. My children can go on a vacation, occasionally," said Kantola, of St. Paul. "We don't do a trip every year. But we are able to occasionally do something as a family."

Like many in Minnesota, Kantola is worried that she is losing her hold on financial security. And as a member of a black middle class that is shrinking, she has reason to.

Demographers say the recent economic recession hit African Americans harder than the broader population. Although many of the state's black middle class has moved from inner cities to the suburbs, its members weren't immune to the economic downturn, said University of Minnesota professor Myron Orfield.

Orfield, executive director of the university's Institute On Race And Poverty, said its research shows that lenders discriminated against many black families by denying them conventional mortgages.

"The black middle class got hit very disproportionately hard because they were much more likely to be in predatory loans than white families with similar education, income and credit history," he said.

These subprime loans offered low monthly payments. But when the interest rates reset upward, mortgage payments soared and forced many black homeowners into foreclosure.

For African Americans who fell out of the middle class during the recession, the recovery will be tough. The unemployment rate for African Americans in the Twin Cities metro area is more than three times that of whites. That's one of the largest unemployment disparities in the country.

Like many homeowners, Kantola is barely above water with her mortgage. A single mother of three boys, she is putting her oldest son through St. Paul College.

"It is a struggle day to day trying to accomplish taking care of the household needs," she said. "Making sure that... his tuition is paid, he has his books and the things he needs."

Kantola, a self-described Army brat, has lived all over the country, but she came to Minnesota from Florida for her job at the college.

She tries to make sure that her family can spend recreational time together, "so we're not so stressed out over living daily life."

As a state employee, Kantola is also part of a shrinking workforce. Between 2010 and 2011, state government cut more than 6,000 jobs.

According to data provided by AFSCME, the union that represents Kantola and other state employees, 3 percent of Minnesota government workers are African American.

State demographer Tom Gillaspy doesn't use the term middle class. Instead, he studies moderate-income households, which he defines as those earning 200 to nearly 300 percent more than the poverty line. For a family of four, that's about $44,000 to $66,000 a year.

Gillaspy said Minnesota saw about a 25 percent drop in the number of moderate-income black households between 2006 and 2010. During that same period, the state lost about 10 percent of such households at the upper end of the scale, he said.

It's not that black middle class people left the state. Gillaspy said many African Americans lost their jobs during the recession.

Some of those losses came because of a downturn in construction, said Louis King, CEO of Summit Academy, a school in north Minneapolis that specializes in training African Americans and other people of color in the construction trades. Home building construction sector was hit particularly hard, he said.

Between 2006 and 2010, Minnesota lost nearly half of its construction jobs and a key avenue for many blacks to reach the middle-class.

King said black workers only make up a small part of the construction sector's workforce. He said African Americans benefit more from government-funded building projects that have minority hiring goals.

"Light rail, ballparks, FBI building, they all have participation goals attached to them, if the government is doing its job," King said. "And that's a major problem. But if they do their jobs, there's opportunity there."

King said he's seeing some signs of progress. He said Summit Academy has recently doubled its placement rate for students in its trades program.

"We can take someone from $3,000 to $35,000 a year, plus benefits, in 20 weeks," he said. "There's just been hiring across the board as we build more relationships and put people out there that have the skills."

Another encouraging sign is that African Americans are increasingly enrolling in post-secondary schools. The Minnesota Office of Higher Education found that between 2001 and 2010, the number of African Americans enrolled in undergraduate programs grew faster than any other minority group in the state.

At Inver Hills Community College, Erica Kantola sees young African American students preparing to enter the workforce every day. She said there are job opportunities out there, especially in the medical and technology fields.

But Kantola said the competition is fierce, and wages aren't keeping up with the increasingly expensive costs of middle-class life.

"It does scare me going forward for the future," she said. "I look at my kids and I say, 'I hope that by the time you reach working age and you have a family that you are able to provide for yourself the way that I am or that my parents were able to provide for me with just a menial or a middle class income.' "

Economists and others who track the nation's recovery say it may take years to recapture the millions of jobs lost during the recession.

Given the persistent employment disparities between black and white Americans, it appears the return of thousands of black Minnesotans to middle class status will be an even slower process.

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