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People in this country still believe in the American Dream, but after one of the worst recessions this country has seen, many are fearful that they may be standing on a trapdoor instead of a ladder to success.

For as long I can remember, I have watched African-Americans create their own opportunities by working hard, getting an education and making smart decisions. But government also played a role. Investments in schools gave people a chance to get an education. Investments in infrastructure like roads and bridges, power grids and communications networks made it more profitable to create jobs. Investments in medical and scientific research provided the foundation for an innovative economy. We did it on our own and we did it together.

However, somewhere along the way, somebody lost the memo. The statistics are startling. They are young single mothers, married parents, high school and college graduates and ex-offenders. The stories they tell about being overworked and underpaid are not surprising. It is the story of America’s new normal. In the new normal, the share of the nation’s income channeled to corporate profits is higher than at any time since the 1920s, while the worker’s share languishes at its lowest since 1965.

Last year eight Americans — the four Waltons of Wal-Mart, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.

I grew up in Detroit, where my ‘old man’ went to work for Chrysler in 1967 and made $168 dollars a week – that’s $608 dollars a week today, without overtime. By the time he retired, the average factory worker with 25 plus years of experience could make upwards of six figures, depending on the job. Then came the recession, which has redefined the middle class, especially the Black middle class. As the automobile industry faced collapse – so did the hopes of many, who had looked forward to graduating from high school, bypassing college and working in the factory.

In 2007, Chrysler was just one of the automobile companies that took advantage of a groundbreaking labor agreement with the United Automobile Workers union, to bring on new employees at an entry-level wage just under $16 an hour, compared with the $28 earned by longtime union workers. They redefined what was is and will be considered a good wage.

Stuck In The Middle: Why Hard Work And Education Only Get You So Far  was originally published on

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