When I checked in late at night at a hotel in Indiana last week, I was greeted by the night desk manager, a young woman with a noticeable limp. She said she had stepped in a hole, ripped up her leg, had three operations, but it still wasn't right. She was working full-time to help support her parents: her mother, who had suffered an aneurism and was bedridden, and her father, also suffering from disability. None could afford health insurance, so this young woman just had to keep going.
While Congress exhausts itself over a totally artificial, politician-invented fake crisis about lifting the debt ceiling, many Americans struggle to keep a ceiling over their heads. Tuition debt now exceeds credit card debt, as more and more understand the importance of a higher education or training and are burdened with loans they can't repay for a decade or longer.
Once the Washington drama is over, the debt ceiling will be lifted, but holes in the floor are expanding. Growing poverty among the formerly employed, ex-workers and ex-homeowners is seen as collateral damage in this war at home. These people continue to fall through the cracks of the floor, as others see the ceiling rise that protects their privileges.
This disconnect is blinding. In Washington, Speaker John Boehner and his conservative colleagues insist that cutting spending will create jobs by increasing business confidence. In Indiana and Chicago and across the country, the business people I talk with say they aren't hiring because they lack customers; they are selling less and earning less. They struggle to remain profitable by trimming costs, laying off workers, cutting back on benefits or shortening up hours. They see the pending layoffs of teachers and police, the exhaustion of unemployment insurance or the payroll tax cut as a threat, not a promise - one that will cost them customers, not give them confidence.
Dr. King used to warn that blacks are last in line for prosperity and first in line for pain, last to be hired and first to be fired. We've made immense strides on ending segregation and opening up locked doors. Today, when the Bears play the Colts, whites from Chicago wear Hester jerseys; blacks from Indianapolis wear Manning jerseys - and both have black head coaches. When Barack Obama was elected president, Europeans marveled, knowing how impossible it would be to elect a minority president in their countries.
But even with these strides, racial economic inequality is worse than when Dr. King left us. And in this crisis, blacks have suffered the most. African-American communities were targeted by the subprime mortgage operators who aggressively peddled mortgages they knew their customers could not afford - and in many cases, did not understand. Houses represent virtually all of middle-income families' wealth. They've lost nearly half their value in many communities, erasing wealth that many thought might help pay for a college education or a decent retirement.
The result is tragic. In 2004, the median wealth of white families was $134,280; for blacks, it was a tenth of that, $13,450. But a new black middle class was growing, stretching to buy homes, starting to feel greater security. Then came the Great Recession. By 2009, white families had lost nearly a fourth of their wealth, down to a little less than $98,000. Blacks had lost 83 percent of their wealth, down to $2,170. That rising middle class had been more than decimated. And no surprise, with black male employment at record lows - only 56 percent of black men over age 20 are working. And while the white unemployment rate has declined marginally since the economy started to grow again, blacks have continued to suffer rising unemployment. It's likely to keep rising as state and public employees, disproportionately minority, face steep layoffs.
As the young desk manager at the hotel demonstrates, while African Americans may have suffered the most, working and middle class families of all races are struggling. Blacks are not bearing this pain exclusively, but are, disproportionately, the canary in the coal mine. But there are many more birds in the mine choking on the toxic fumes of economic desperation. They have neither the time nor the patience to follow the convoluted politics of Washington. They do know their interests are not being served, and while politicians seem deaf to them now, they are likely to hear from them in the 2012 elections.