Ferguson: No reason for blacks to vote for Democrats

Building on the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Democrats are trying to mobilize blacks to help them keep control of the Senate.

In black churches and on black talk radio, black civic leaders have begun invoking Michael Brown’s death in an effort get black voters to channel their anger by voting Democratic in the midterm elections, according to the New York Times.

But why would informed blacks vote for Democrats?

“The data is going to indicate sadly that when the Obama administration is over, black people will have lost ground in every single leading economic indicator category,” says Tavis Smiley, a PBS host and political commentator.

Tavis Smiley, PBS Commentator

Tavis Smiley, PBS Commentator

In January 2009, when President Obama took office, the national unemployment rate was 7.8 %. In contrast, the unemployment rate for blacks was 12.7% and the rate for black youth was 21.8 %.

In July 2014, the national unemployment rate was 6.2%; the unemployment rate for whites was 5.3 %. In contrast, the unemployment rate for blacks was 11.4% and the rate for black youth was 24.8 %.

In August 2014, the unemployment rate for blacks, 11.4 %, was almost double the 6.1 % rate for the overall population.

“The 2-to-1 employment disparity between African Americans and whites is not closing and appears to be a permanent part of the economy,” said Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, senior director of NAACP’s economic department.

The income gap between black and white households is also about the same now as it was when Obama took office.

Moreover, recent black college graduates ages 22 to 27 have an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent. That’s more than double the 5.6 percent unemployed among all college grads in that age range and almost a 300 percent increase from the 2007 level of 4.6 percent, before the Great Recession, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

An estimated 10.6 percent of black women age 20 or older are unemployed, a figure unchanged from a year ago, according to the Labor Department.

With justification, all this is causing some blacks to question whether Obama and the Democrats deserve their almost automatic support.

Bruce Dixon, Black Agenda Report

Bruce Dixon,
Black Agenda Report

“When Barack Obama leaves the White House in January 2017, what will black America, his earliest and most consistent supporters, have to show for making his political career possible. We’ll have the T-shirts and buttons and posters, the souvenirs. That will be the good news. The bad news is what else we’ll have … and not,” said Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report.

Obama won 96 percent of the black vote in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012.

There’s simply no reason for that level of support to continue.

Turning unemployment into self-employment

By Bill MacKenzie

Ronald Reagan once wisecracked, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

But sometimes, the government gets it right.

Julie Thomas knows that. Thomas recalls with sadness when her beloved black lab, Barney, had cancer. Wanting desperately to ease Barney’s pain, Thomas, an employee at Intel’s Hillsboro site, studied small animal massage and began treating her pet. When Thomas learned she was going to be let go by Intel, she decided to take a risk and change careers to work in canine water therapy.

But how could she get the business off the ground while unemployed? Oregon’s Self Employment Assistance Program (SEAP) came to her rescue.

The regular Unemployment Compensation program requires unemployed workers to be actively seeking work to get benefits. SEAP allows unemployed people to collect allowances equal to their benefits while devoting all their time to starting a business, rather than looking for another job.

The program was created in 1993 after passage of federal legislation championed by then-U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden. SEAP is now active in seven states, including Oregon. In 2012, legislation sponsored by Wyden — now Oregon’s senior U.S. Senator — provided for $35 million in grants to states to improve administration and promotion of the program.

With the economy still struggling, SEAP offers a lifeline to some entrepreneurs.

“It seemed a perfect fit for me,” Thomas said.

Thomas opened her business, Doggie Paddle, in Portland in October 2010.

“I’m not making the money I made working in a corporation,” she said, “but I’m doing something with animals, something of service, something for which I have a passion.”

Thomas is just one of several thousand Oregonians who have taken advantage of SEAP, including 55 now enrolled from Washington County, with seven of those from Hillsboro.

With SEAP support, Dave Crosswhite of Tigard started Oregon Backflow Testing, which tests backflow prevention devices that help to prevent hazardous materials from entering drinking water. He said SEAP was a huge factor.

“It took the pressure off of needing to produce an income right away and allowed me to focus on building the business and not having to job search in order to receive benefits,” he explained.

Glen Wagner and Steve Bauer signed up after they both lost their technology jobs. They decided to start a company called Open Lore in Beaverton that would deliver assisting technology to people having difficulty reading English, primarily those with dyslexia.

“Unfortunately, with multiple kids in college and still relatively young, at least at heart, we did not have the complete means to meet our family obligations and the capital expenses of starting a new technology business,” Wagner said. “With SEAP, we could put our heart and soul into the business.”

But SEAP is not without its weaknesses.

Key SEAP performance data is based only on surveys returned by program participants, but a lot of participants don’t return the surveys. For example, a recent Oregon survey sent out to 356 SEAP participants got only 78 replies — a 22 percent return.

So the state doesn’t know how many people sign up for SEAP, exhaust their benefits and end up with no business and no job. Some of those missing may be in worse shape than when they started.

Another glaring weakness is, success in Oregon hasn’t been determined on the basis of how many SEAP participants start and maintain a successful business. Rather, success has been judged by how well the state promotes SEAP and how much money is distributed to participants. Only government could think that way.

In addition, although SEAP requires that potential participants fill out an application scored to determine the feasibility of their proposed business, there’s no real follow-up. That means no assurance participants will take advantage of the array of support programs available to help grow and sustain a business. Failure may too often be the consequence.

Only about half of all new businesses survive five years or more, and only about one-third survive 10 years or more. To improve their odds, SEAP-related businesses need continuing guidance. After all, although new businesses create new jobs, it’s only when they succeed and expand that real job growth occurs.

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Sept. 13, 2013