MIAMI — For the Ingram clan, working for the Miami-Dade County transit system has led to regular paychecks, a steady advance up the economic ladder and even romance.
By driving buses in Miami’s sun-scraped communities, Richard Ingram and his wife, Susie, were able to join the ranks of the black middle class, moving with their four sons from a rental in the down-and-out neighborhood of Overtown eventually into their own house in central Miami.
Two of their children later followed them to the county bus depot. The eldest son, also named Richard, met his future wife there when she was assigned to the same route as his father.
“I tell you, my job is a godsend,” Richard Ingram Jr. said.
Now his older son, 21-year-old DQuan, is applying to take the transit system test, hoping to become a third-generation driver. But Mr. Ingram said that unlike when he was hired, today the competition is tougher and the jobs are a lot scarcer.
For the Ingrams and millions of other black families, working for the government has long provided a dependable pathway to the middle class and a measure of security harder to find in the private sector, particularly for those without college degrees.
Roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs. They are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics.
“Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,” said Jennifer Laird, a sociologist at the University of Washington who has been researching the subject.
During the Great Recession, though, as tax revenues plunged, federal, state and local governments began shedding jobs. Even now, with the economy regaining strength, public sector employment has still not bounced back. An incomplete recovery is part of the reason, but a combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls. At the same time, attempts to curb collective bargaining, like those led by Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, have weakened public unions.
The Labor Department counts half a million fewer public sector jobs than before the start of the recession in 2007. That figure, however, understates just how much the government’s work force has shrunk, said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research organization in Washington. That is because it fails to account for the normal growth in the country’s population: Factor that in, she said, and there are 1.8 million fewer jobs in the public sector for people to fill.
The decline reverses a historical pattern, researchers say, with public sector employees typically holding onto their jobs even during most economic downturns.
Because blacks hold a disproportionate share of the jobs, relative to their share of the population, the cutbacks naturally hit them harder.
But black workers overall, women in particular, also lost their jobs at a higher rate than whites, Ms. Laird found. There was a “double disadvantage for black public sector workers,” she said. “They are concentrated in a shrinking sector of the economy, and they are substantially more likely than other public sector workers to be without work.”
In Miami’s public schools, many of the layoffs in recent years have fallen on secretaries, school monitors and paraprofessionals, said Fedrick Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade and one of the Ingram brothers. His bargaining unit lost more than 6,000 positions since 2009 at the same time the number of students was increasing, he said.
“During the recession, we had a really hard time in the school system,” said Mr. Ingram, 41, who was previously a music teacher, a career spurred on by the music and dancing lessons his mother insisted he and his brothers take. “They’re still hiring a lot more people part time so they don’t have to pay benefits. Even for teachers, there’s no tenure and very little job security.”
Melody Glenn, 47, an elementary schoolteacher in Dade for 22 years, is a second-generation public sector employee, earning $55,000 a year. Her mother was a cafeteria supervisor in the public schools, while her father worked as a mechanic for the Postal Service.
Now she lives in the middle-income suburb of Miami Gardens, a few blocks away from Fedrick’s brother Richard. On a recent Saturday morning, she and Richard stood together on the sidelines, snapping photos as their 12-year-old sons ran drills in a free training camp sponsored by the Miami Dolphins.
Ms. Glenn said her 25-year-old daughter, Courtney, has two part-time jobs, one providing after care in the schools and the other working for Tri-Rail, South Florida’s commuter rail system.
“She can’t find a full-time job,” Ms. Glenn said. “She’s waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for an interview right now.”
To make ends meet, they all live together: Ms. Glenn, her three children and her two grandchildren.
Budget cuts have compounded the struggles of black communities. “We lost a lot of programs,” Ms. Glenn said, remembering, for instance, summers in the parks where she spent entire days as a child, swimming, playing tennis and going on field trips, with lunch and tutoring thrown in.
Richard Ingram Jr. nodded his head. “All you had to do was sign up,” he said. “Now the park doesn’t have staff.” He tries to fill in, running a sports league, chauffeuring his son’s friends to practices and even supplying cleats when one of them cannot afford a pair.
The recession was particularly hard on the black middle class, erasing three decades of economic gains. A new analysis of foreclosures between 2005 and 2009 by researchers at Cornell, for example, found that “mostly black and mostly Latino neighborhoods lost homes at rates approximately three times higher than white areas.”
Today, blacks are less likely than whites to own their own homes or have sizable retirement savings, two of the primary ways most families accumulate wealth. In 2013, the median white family had net assets of $142,000 compared with $11,000 for the median black family, according to the Pew Research Center. The difficulty in closing that gap is compounded by the fact that the median income for black households is just 60 percent of that of whites.
Many employed blacks are stuck in lower-wage industries that tend to have fewer benefits and higher turnover, which is one reason public sector jobs — more likely to be unionized and subject to stricter anti-discrimination protections — have been such a magnet for blacks.
Thanks to a series of presidential executive orders and court decisions that began in the 1960s, a rapidly expanding public sector welcomed blacks and women who had been locked out of other corners of the labor market. With the federal government paving the way, state and local governments soon followed, and they continued to expand their work forces through the late 2000s even as the size of the federal government stabilized.
“Where else can you get a middle-class job without a college degree?” asked Bruce Bodner, the lawyer for the Transit Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia. A bus driver there who has been on the job for more than four years earns an average of $64,000 a year including overtime pay, he said, and skilled craft workers, like mechanics and carpenters, can earn more. Nearly 60 percent of the roughly 5,000 people who work for the city’s transit system, he said, are black.
State and local government workers earned an average of $28.17 an hour in December 2014, according to the Labor Department, in addition to a basket of other benefits worth nearly $16 an hour. (For a typical 35-hour week, that is roughly $51,000 a year, plus $29,000 in benefits.) Often their paychecks are supplemented with overtime.
In Miami, a bus operator’s base pay falls between $32,000 and $50,000, without overtime, according to county figures.
The senior Richard Ingram, now 62, worked as a porter, short-order cook and roofer before he got a job cleaning buses with the transit authority in 1979 as a result of a now defunct federal jobs training program.
After more than 30 years, most of them spent driving, Mr. Ingram — his uniform a medley of green down to his avocado-color leather shoes — is now off the bus, checking drivers’ schedules and paperwork, beginning at 4:30 a.m. each weekday and leaving at 2:30 p.m. He is thinking of retiring this year with a pension, as his wife, Susie, did in 2013 after 20 years behind the wheel.
Their son Richard, 42, also remembers a string of low-paying jobs, including stints at Burger King and Jiffy Lube, and as a security guard and D.J., before he joined the transit system in 2000.
“That was the stability I was looking for,” said Mr. Ingram Jr., who works a 52-hour week. His younger brother, Randy, who began driving at the same time, recently switched to a job as a transit electronic technician, working from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. With children at home, he found the night shift a struggle, but he wanted the opportunity to move up.
Supporters of curbs on the collective bargaining power of government employee unions like the one led by Mr. Walker, of Wisconsin, said they were aimed at saving taxpayer money and improving efficiency.
But some researchers and union officials also see a racial undercurrent in the campaigns.
“With public employment in general being under attack, it’s really an attack on these communities,” said Mr. Bodner of the Philadelphia transit workers union, referring to black people.
Florida government workers have been targeted as well, Fedrick Ingram said, noting that the Republican Gov. “Rick Scott went directly after the unions here.”
In Miami, the drivers have resisted attempts to take away benefits, Richard Ingram said, but temporarily lost some paid holidays, overtime and bonuses.
Still, he is grateful for what he described as a “a job that you can count on and that could get you what you wanted if you worked hard enough.”