People want financial security, but the barriers to accessing good work look different in every city. It is often the unfair influence of the “who you know” economy, and the numerous effects of racial discrimination and exclusion in the workplace that diminish access to true economic opportunity.
Our interviewees described how much a good job means to an individual, a family, and a community. Even where a community’s economy was doing well, interviewees discussed the unintended consequences of having to work multiple jobs to get by. Residents point to the limited upward mobility they experience, and the importance of ZIP code and personal networks in determining who gets ahead. The perception that “who you know” is a major predictor of who gains access to jobs and economic opportunity reinforces the perceived power of the exclusive “good old boys club,” which favors white men with money to spend and connections.
Many black residents recounted experiences of employment discrimination. Their experiences suggest that people of color and low-income individuals in professional settings risk being tokenized and often face overt racial or class discrimination at work. Furthermore, the following are seen as key barriers to access to economic opportunity: racial discriminaton, education/skill level, networks (who you know), economic/workforce development efforts, a lack of diverse industry, and low wages.
Black-white wage gaps are only growing larger. As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Generally speaking, black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. Black men’s average hourly wages were 22 percent lower than those of white men in 1979, and by 1985 the gap had grown to 27 percent. Men’s black-white wage gaps remained fairly stable from 1985 through much of the 2000s, gradually trending upward to 31 percent by 2015.
“We talk about the good old boys club. And basically, this system that if you’re not related to a person who already has a position of power or have certain connections to them, you kiss their ring, you have allegiance to them, you can’t get anywhere.”
— Black female, 30, Charleston
“You can go get your master’s or get your PhD, but at the end of the day, it kinda is now all of who you know.”
— Black male, Richmond
“You shouldn’t have to kill yourself just to survive.”
— White male, Louisville
“Mainly, the have-nots are people who live in what we call the inner city. They have a high school diploma or not. Most don’t have education beyond that. And, you know, when I was growing up, it used to be you could graduate from high school and get a job at one of the plants, so you could get a job that would put you in the middle class right out of high school. Those jobs don’t exist anymore.”
— Black female, 66, Knoxville
“You don’t know whether it’s because you were not qualified or because [you’re] Black. That’s always a question.”
— Black female, 66, Richmond