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Why Isn't Pittsburgh Able to Sustain a Black Middle Class?

Posted by C. Matthew Hawkins on March 21, 2013 at 4:25 AM

Last night I attended a public forum at 90.5 WESA-FM where the central question was why Pittsburgh does not have much of a Black middle-class compared to other cities of its size. Panelists for the discussion included the CEO for the Greater Pittsburgh Urban League, Esther Bush; Pittsburgh City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, and UPMC's Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer Candi-Castelberry Singleton. Pittsburgh Quarterly journalist Ben Schmitt also participated in the discussion.

[UPDATE: WESA-FM later aired a recording of the forum, which is still available online. You can listen to it here.]

Factors Contributing to Pittsburgh's Small Middle Class

The panelists identified a number of factors contributing to the low percentage of African Americans in Pittsburgh's middle class, including the impression that Pittsburgh is not a "risk-taking" city, and that cutbacks in government spending, at all levels, is shrinking the Black middle class nationwide because many Blacks became middle class through government jobs.

They also noted that inequitable distribution of Community Development Block Grant money in the city of Pittsburgh -- with more affluent sections, such as Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, getting a disproportionate share of funding, while distressed neighborhoods, such as Homewood Brushton and the Hill District languish -- is a factor preventing Black neighborhoods from attracting or holding onto middle class residents.

Does Pittsburgh Fear a Competitive Black Middle Class?

While much was also said about the unpreparedness of many African Americans to enter the workforce, and the need to develop necessary social skills, I felt that the discussion was most constructive when it turned, briefly, to the question of the inability of people with college degrees and experience to find full-time jobs at a living wage in the city. At one point panelists noted that "the career track is missing" for Pittsburgh's Black professionals. This is especially true for Black males.

When I look around at a number of my own friends, who had work experience and credentials but who have had to leave the city in order to find meaningful full-time employment, it is not surprising that many have concluded that -- despite all of the rhetorical concern expressed about saving, empowering, and encouraging promising Black males -- the words and the reality don't seem to match. It is not surprising that many have concluded that when Black males become competitive for jobs in Pittsburgh, the road to employment is blocked.

Social Networks that Connect and Exclude

One of the observations that shed light on the situation, and pointed the way toward a solution, was that building a career is all about becoming part of an insider social network. Pittsburgh, more than most cities, is a closely networked town. As those social networks have become encrusted over the years it is difficult for outsiders to break into them. This is even a problem within the Black community itself, but it is compounded on the interracial scale.

Ironically, the very thing that gives the city of Pittsburgh the charm of a small town may also exclude many knowledgeable, talented and skilled African Americans from contributing to the economic vitality of this region. Until that issue is addressed, Pittsburgh will continue to lose Black professionals to other cities.

I have shared additional thoughts on this topic in a recent post on blog "Postblackhistory".

Tell us - what do you think hinders the growth of Pittsburgh's Black middle class? What can Black PIttsburghers do to overcome the hindrances?

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Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
11:51 AM on March 22, 2013 
Never shy about starting off the conversation on my own post, I want to point out that several of the panelists made a point that I think is important: solving this problem is not just the responsibility of Black Pittsburghers -- and it may not even be possible for Black Pittsburghers to solve this problem on their own. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Director of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, will point out at CMU later this afternoon, the historic difference between the way the nation has responded to Black migrants in Northern cities and the way it responded to European immigrants to those same cities is that the problems facing European immigrants were framed as being a city-wide concern, whereas the problems facing African American migrants were framed as being problems Black People would have to deal with themselves. If we are to overcome the hindrances we face then part of our task, in my opinion, is never to let the rest of the city forget that it will either thrive or whither based on how well African American neighborhoods are doing in this region. Our fates are bound together.
Reply Ron Gaydos
1:09 PM on March 29, 2013 
i think it's important to be very clear about these issues. There is certainly a disparity in public support networks, for instance, in the Squirrel Hill and Shadyside neighborhoods. These areas have the highest proportion of super-voters (almost never missing an election), so their political voice is comparatively louder than Homewood or East Liberty. But CDBG funding CANNOT be granted to affluent areas unless there is a small pocket of low-to-moderate income people identified or there is a clear benefit to low-to-mod income people.

The political "clout" - and not subsidies - is what I'd say contributes to the disadvantage among the more affluent and less affluent communities. The classic cry applies here: don't get mad - organize!
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
5:04 AM on March 30, 2013 
The Controversy over CDBG funds is that when the funds were established by the Federal Government, in 1974, the intent was that they be used to stabilize and rebuild distressed communities but in Pittsburgh these funds have been used to perform tasks the city was obligated to perform anyway in more affluent communities.

While it may be true that organizations applying for these grants in affluent communities have technically qualified for them, under the present guidelines in the City of Pittsburgh, residents in neighborhoods such as Homewood argue that these guidelines should be changed to more closely reflect the intent of the federal government in establishing such funds in the first place.

If the requirements were, for example, that the funds be used in districts based on how many CDBG eligible blocks that district has then funding would be focused on meeting the needs of distressed neighborhoods in Pittsburgh rather than being spread out into affluent neighborhoods with pockets blight.

There is no doubt that Squirrel Hill and other affluent neighborhoods have a lot of political firepower and are able to raise a great deal of money for political campaigns. Competing with neighborhoods that are able to draw on a wealth of political and economic resources will remain a challenge for neighborhoods such as Homewood.

This problem will continue to be compounded by historical social networks in the City of Pittsburgh, which have traditionally kept African American communities on the margins.
Reply Albert W
4:57 PM on April 1, 2013 
I believe most Black middle-class families seek an environment that fosters great Black middle-class living (an excellent Black neighborhood with great housing; good public schools and affordable local colleges; great employment opportunities and substantial business opportunities; and a tolerable racial climate). Pittsburgh fails in all of the above categories.

In the 70?s many local businesses were encouraged (affirmative action) to hire Black employees. Because of the low numbers of local talent with college degrees, companies recruited a substantial number of Black college grads from the south. Most Historical Black colleges in the south were very affordable as compared to colleges in Pittsburgh. At the same time, Black students from Pittsburgh went south to receive an education from the same affordable Black colleges (and never came back).

I believe that the imported southerners did not feel the need to develop a sustainable Black middle-class community. They had ties back south and considered Pittsburgh as a temporary home. Unfortunately, the native-born Pittsburghers-gone-south found a better permanent home down south and will never come home. This is a brain-drain to the max!

Quality low cost higher education in Pittsburgh is the major way to reverse the brain drain.
Reply Steve D
7:45 AM on April 9, 2013 
Is this the report where you got your data?

Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
11:24 PM on April 11, 2013 
Steve, the document you provided a link to is the FY 2013 Annual Action Plan for the City of Pittsburgh which was prepared for HUD. It provides raw data about the City of Pittsburgh as a whole and specific projects related Pittsburgh's objectives in the use of CDBG funds. This report clarifies current priorities for the city, and projects and organizations that have been funded.

It is a very useful document for anyone who is interested in neighborhood development in the City of Pittsburgh to have, even if one does not use the whole thing. It would be interesting to have a discussion, online, about the "low", "medium", and "high" priorities identified by the Department of City Planning, and to discuss what these priorities mean for Homewood-Brushton, and what alternative priority designations might look like. That would be a good exercise to get community residential and commercial stakeholders, at the neighborhood level, thinking about and engaged in the process of envisioning the future of Homewood.

One can never have "too much" of a transparent, informed, and democratic process. Thanks for providing the link. For those who get an "error" message, be aware that the hyperlink is broken so you will have to copy and paste the entire web address that Steve provided onto your browser window. The address should end with ".pdf" This will take you to the document.
Reply Elwin Green
11:47 AM on April 12, 2013 
Your humble Publisher apologizes for the fact that I can't post a corrected link, after trying multiple times. Sigh.
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