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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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