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Can the Black Middle Class Rebound?

The middle-class dream is getting a Motown makeover with down-and-out Detroiters reinventing themselves and rethinking the path to cash comfort.

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In the past five years of tough economic times, African Americans have lost 30 years of economic growth, essentially obliterating the middle class. But the middle-class dream is getting a Motown makeover with down-and-out Detroiters reinventing themselves and rethinking the path to cash comfort.

After four years without a regular paycheck, paid vacations and other benefits of full-time employment, Nubia Wardford Polk readily rattles off how she’s been making do while waiting to land her next steady position.

She budgets when and how often to fill up her gas tank, then charts her errand-running and other trips to get the most out of every gallon. Whenever possible, she bikes. If the rare whim to shop strikes her, she scouts the clearance rack at secondhand stores.

Never before has Polk, holder of dual college degrees, had to be so thrifty. Her bail-bondsman father also owned restaurants and an insurance adjuster’s firm; her mother was one of two Blacks integrating what then was an all-white nursing staff at Henry Ford Hospital. Born into middle-class comfort, she’d maintained that living standard throughout most of her adulthood.

But, in 2008, things changed. Smack in the midst of the Great Recession, which officially started in December 2007, Polk got laid off as a Charles H. Wright Museum administrator. Her family lost roughly half its income. And like many Blacks of her by-the-bootstraps background in Detroit—once on a shortlist of U.S. cities boasting considerable Black affluence—joblessness gave Polk her first true and enduring taste of financial hardship.

“I’ve called upon all the skills I have and then some,” Polk, 50, told B.L.A.C. Detroit Magazine, explaining how she’s managed to stay housed, clothed, fed and meet other basic needs through what has surely not been an economic recovery for all since the recession’s official end in June 2009.

“What I’ve been forced to do,” she adds, “is to really go inward and use my creativity to do a lot of things.”

An avid cook, former schoolteacher and professional dancer, Polk, post layoff, has pieced together several freelance gigs. She caters meals, organizes and preps for dance recitals, substitute teaches in public school classrooms, plans art exhibits and sells art for local artists.

To be sure, that sort of self-sustaining resourcefulness is essential in an era when cash flow is a major problem for wide swaths of Americans—an even bigger challenge for Black Americans. Almost 70 percent of Blacks nationwide who grew up middle-class will not fare as well economically as their parents did, according to last year’s Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project. The National Urban League’s annual State of Black America report concluded in 2012 that the Great Recession obliterated the last 30 years’ worth of economic gains by African Americans.

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