Economic justice is a subcategory of social justice and welfare economics, which designates the set of ethical and moral ideas for building financial institutions. Its objective pertains to creating vast opportunities for each individual, regardless of their social status, gender, or ethnicity, to establish a sufficient monetary foundation to live a productive, dignified, and happy life. Thus, creating more economic opportunities for all members of society, such as earning viable wages, may sustain steady economic growth. When more citizens or communities, in general, are capable of providing for themselves and maintaining stable income over time, they are more likely to drive demand in the economy by spending on goods and services. However, when economic justice is absent, the inefficiency in the economy occurs because certain population groups cannot participate in it to a full extent.
Furthering the issue of economic justice, it is crucial to mention that systemic racial discrimination has exacerbated the persistence or race-associated gaps, which are illustrated in several economic indicators. For the Black American population, the most prominent divides concerning economic justice are in measures of household wealth, which reflect centuries of white privilege that made it incredibly complicated for people of color to achieve financial security. Therefore, the population, economic injustices are rooted in systemic racism, which creates persistent disparities in health status, access to health care services, employment, income, housing, and adequate wages. Moreover, economists and sociologists have argued that the economy of the United States itself was built on the occupational exploitation and segregation of Black people, with institutional policies and government practices helping create the legacy of injustice and inequality (Munger & Seron, 2017). Together, the practices and policy decisions made by US governments throughout centuries concentrated workers of color in consistently undervalued occupations, which institutionalized racial inequalities in wages and benefits and facilitated employment discrimination.
The economic rights of African Americans have been historically violated as the population has been viewed as non-valuable and non-important. The practice of slavery, alongside with its forcing brutal work conditions, even after its abolition, tainted the approaches to liberation, leaving the population with limited resources and opportunities (Solomon, Castro, & Maxwell, 2019). Black people were prevented from moving to other states search of security and better economic opportunities and, due to the discriminatory agricultural policies and racially-motivated oppression, were continuously devaluated. As a result, people of color could only remain lower-wage workers, and to this day, the group is overrepresented in the lowest-paid service, domestic, and agricultural vocations. While the days of slavery and Jim Crow laws are behind America, the practices devaluated the contributions that workers of color can make into the economy, which is why the legacy of the oppressive institution continues affecting America’s economic system and its outcomes.
With the Civil Rights Movement, the US anticipated a socioeconomic transformation that would bring people of color equal opportunities to live in wealth and prosperity. However, the new laws introduced back in the 1960s did not fully fund agencies responsible for helping institutions and people accountable for discrimination, continuing the vicious cycle of undervaluing Black workers (Solomon et al., 2019). Between 1980 to 2018, the population of the US grew by 44%, with more than 125 million people currently participating in the workforce. Despite the exponential growth, Congress has consistently been refusing to substantially increase the inflation-adjusted budget of agencies tasked with promoting equality. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission secured $505 million for discrimination victims, but the lack of resources available to the agency has led to a persistent backlog of around 50,000 charges (EEOC, 2018). Therefore, the processes aimed at helping workers of color get better financial opportunities have been flawed from the beginning. Moreover, while the government itself cannot guarantee to end all employment discrimination, very few US states have anti-discrimination institutions with enough resources for tackling the systemic issue, while do not have agencies for equality enforcement altogether (Perkins, 2018). For instance, in Louisiana, more money of taxpayers goes toward the salary of the governor than on safeguarding communities being discriminated within employment opportunities (Perkins, 2018). As lawmakers and agencies have limited anti-discrimination enforcement scope, the economic well-being of Black Americans is continuously jeopardized.
Thus, discriminatory practices in employment, as well as the lack of governmental efforts to address economic inequality create an environment of injustice and limited opportunities for African Americans. Over the past four decades, Black workers have systematically experienced a rate of unemployment twice as higher as their white counterparts’ (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). In addition, African American households have also faced 25-45% lower median income as compared to white families, with the disparities existing without considerations of household structure and educational attainment (Chetty et al., 2019). Therefore, structural racism at federal, state, and local levels of policymaking has developed persistent and noticeable inequalities in economic well-being. Their elimination is likely to require long-term and targeted interventions to expand the opportunities for Black Americans.
Role of Social Workers
The role of social workers in addressing the challenges that come with economic inequality among Black Americans. To social workers, extreme economic disparities that the population face is approached as a violation of social justice, which must be addressed through systematic and communal efforts of the professionals involved in the field. As mentioned by Dr. Charles Lewis (2015), many social workers, especially from younger generations, are currently not satisfied with what the profession can do to change the current state of economic injustice. Therefore, it is crucial that social workers become more engaged in the economic and political affairs of the country.
On the macro level, it is imperative for social workers to challenge the stereotype that blames people for allowing themselves to experience economic instability due to being inadequate. The reality of life in society is far more different and complex. While it is important that social workers teach their clients to exercise their individual responsibilities, they must be able to achieve their goals in a fair and just environment that can support them. Whenever possible, social workers will collaborate with people using services to challenge injustice and inequality while also promoting strength, agency, self-determination, and hope.
Social workers should take strategic responsibility for developing and sustaining a culture where the decision-making is informed by social justice, social inclusion, and equality. They will take strategic responsibility for ensuring that the services are compliant with the law and secure the provision of expert advice, thus making judicious use of it. Social workers will monitor and evaluate their effectiveness and influence, leading and informing new approaches. They will take action to address and reduce the impact of emerging issues, working together with partner organizations to reach positive outcomes.
When dealing with the challenge of economic injustice affecting African Americans, social workers will take the role of advocates. In such a role, the professionals with the fight for the rights of others and work toward obtaining the needed resources by convincing society and the government of the legitimate needs and rights of society’s members. Considering the fact that Black Americans are in a particular position of disadvantage, who can rarely speak for themselves or be in any position of authority, social workers’ advocacy can occur and different levels to promote the interests of the group. For example, the close collaboration of social workers with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can lead to the improved availability of resources to push for establishing equality of opportunity among Black Americans. Such collaboration can contribute to the knowledge of existing policies, political and legislative processes, as well as service delivery. Social workers’ research, analytical, and communication skills will allow to gain deeper insights into issues contributing to economic inequality and draft detailed policy drafts and proposals and present their potential efficacy in front of decision-makers.
To summarize, the economic injustice that Black Americans face has not emerged instantly as a consequence of the dire financial situation in the country. Instead, it was the institutional racism targeted at the community and employment discrimination that prevented the target population from having equal opportunities to their white counterparts. As of now, there are not enough efforts and resources available to address the challenge, especially due to the adverse socioeconomic impact of COVID-19. In the role of advocates, social workers will support individuals and communities in alleviating the burden of the issue and collaborate with relevant organizations and stakeholders to propose policies, ranging from reparations to the support of vulnerable groups in finding opportunities for work.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2017.
Chetty, R., Hendren, N., Jones, M. R., & Porter, S. (2019). Race and economic opportunity in the United States: An intergenerational perspective. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 135(2), 711-783.
EEOC. (2018). What you should know: The EEOC’s fiscal year 2018 highlight.
Lewis, C. (2015). Why social workers should address economic inequality. Swhelper.
Munger, F. W., & Seron, C. (2017). Race, law, and inequality, 50 years after the civil rights era. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 13, 331-350.
Perkins, H. (2018). Book of the states 2018, Chapter 4: State executive branch. Web.
Solomon, D., Castro, A., & Maxwell, C. (2019). Systematic inequality and economic opportunity. American Progress.