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Jobless Numbers Show No Evidence of a Post-Racial America


In the giddy, post-electoral haze in 2008, many people hoped and believed that the election of President Obama would herald a new, “post-racial” America. But a look at some recent economic statistics tells a different story.

While overall employment in March stood at 9.7 percent, some 16.5 percent of African-Americans were unemployed. A staggering 41.1 percent of African-Americans between 16 and 19 years of age are unemployed, based on the March numbers, while 19 percent of adult African-American men and 12.4 percent of adult African-American women are facing unemployment. With the exception of the unemployment rate for teenagers, those seasonally adjusted numbers were up over February statistics, even as white unemployment stayed the same.

[Economy1] The numbers weren’t much better among Hispanics.

Latinos face a 12.6 percent unemployment rate overall, while Latino teenagers face a non-seasonally adjusted 30.1 unemployment rate and Latino men and women are unemployed at rates of 12.8 and 12 percent, respectively

Meanwhile, seasonally adjusted white unemployment stood at 8.8 percent (and non-seasonally adjusted unemployment declined from 9.7 to 9.3 percent). While unemployment in the general population — and the white population — seemingly peaked last October, it didn’t peak for African-Americans or Latinos until January 2010 and has already nudged back up. Latino women, in fact, continue to see an expansion in their rates of unemployment.

But the Obama Administration has done little, so far, to target higher rates of unemployment in communities of color as a result of the recession — let alone the existing conditions that lead to ongoing disproportionately high unemployment rates, specifically within African-American communities.

The jobs bill passed by the Senate doesn’t contain even the money for youth employment programs — like the ones mentioned approvingly by the president in 2009 — passed by the House, and it doesn’t contain provisions pushed by African-American lawmakers to make sure that at least 10 percent of the budget for each section of the bill goes to communities where 20 percent of the population is low-income. It has been criticized by African-American lawmakers like Rep. Elijiah Cummings (D-Md.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, for not focusing on the unique problems facing the African-American community and, in particular, hard-hit urban communities facing chronic unemployment. Cummings spokesman Paul Kincaid said, “The congressman and the CBC are really focused on the need for expanding job training as a way to combat these issues.”

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, agrees with Cummings that the president hasn’t gone far enough, saying “[The administration has] been way too meek on it. One thing in particular they could have pushed employment programs targeted to areas of high unemployment. They could focus on areas where unemployment rates are above 20 percent or something, and get money for job creation to areas like Detroit, which employment is just falling through the floor.” If the administration focused on communities disproportionately affected by unemployment, even if it didn’t specifically target African-American communities, its efforts would have a disproportional impact on those communities suffering most from unemployment, including African-Americans, he said.

A report issued in March by the Joint Economic Committee noted more disturbing trends, including high rates of underemployment in the African-American community, which takes into account people working part time when they’d prefer to be working full time and those so discouraged by the jobless recovery that they haven’t been looking for work as diligently. The typical period of unemployment, while always higher for African-Americans, is now at nearly 24 weeks, compared to just 18.4 weeks for white workers. And the report found that nearly 45 percent of unemployed African-Americans have been so for more than 27 weeks. Despite comments by the JEC in the report that higher rates of un- and underemployment could be related to a mismatch between skills and available jobs, which could be addressed through training programs, the JEC’s statistics show that education doesn’t bring employment equity: 8.2 percent of African-Americans with college degrees are unemployed, but only 4.5 percent of college-educated white people are. Baker noted that such statistics have, unfortunately, been typical for years. “African-Americans suffer a disproportionate impact to their employment at every downturn, in part because they have a disproportionate rate of unemployment to start with,” he said. Unemployment in the African-American community was in the double digits prior to the economic downturn and continued, as it always does, to climb up to disproportionately high rates; no one expects it to achieve parity with white unemployment rates as part of the stimulus or jobs bills, let alone because of the recovery.

When asked in 2009 about the African-American unemployment rate — which economists expected could hit 20 percent by the end of the year — and why he hadn’t yet targeted programs at the African-American community, Obama said: “We know that the African-American unemployment rate, the Latino unemployment rate are consistently higher than the national average. And so, if the economy as a whole is doing poorly, the African-American community is going to be doing poorly, and they’re going to be hit harder. The best thing that I can do for the African-American community, the Latino community, the Asian community, whatever community is to get the economy as a whole moving.” The president then went onto the describe some existing programs that target urban teenagers with job skills training, and how the administration might duplicate those programs eventually, in a roundabout way of answering what the administration might do if African-American employment rates did not improve. At the time, reports indicated that if unemployment in the African-American community continued to get worse, the administration would look at more targeted programs.

The National Urban League, in a report issued March 24, suggested a similar program: $150 million in grants to cities, states, non-profits and universities based on local unemployment rates to create three million jobs in the hardest-hit communities. Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial said, “The first thing that needs to be done is direct job creation to put people to work, because fixing structural problems can’t happen while so many people are out of work. What we did in the 30s, what we did in the 70s, with the government hiring people directly, is a good place to start. Congressman Miller’s bill, which would give money to cities to hire people, with 25 percent allocated to community-based organizations to help put people to work.” He also suggested that one way for the president to resolve the criticisms that funding infrastructure projects disproportionately puts white people back to work is to invest heavily in construction training programs in urban areas, where those skills are often in short supply and unemployment is highest.

Economics professor and author Boyce Watkins of Syracuse University thinks a jobs program needs to go much further than that: “Put in place $80-100 billion to a direct effort to create jobs in urban centers around the country, with a disproportionate amount of resources targeted at cities with the highest unemployment. Then you can have a dramatic impact on unemployment very quickly. It would be more effective than giving tax credits to small businesses to hire people,” Watkins said in an interview. The president, he added, “doesn’t have to have a black agenda, he can simply have a strong urban agenda,” but he’s concerned that, with Larry Summers and Tim Geithner at the helm of economic policy, the president won’t hear much about an economic agenda that addresses poverty issues, let alone economic issues of concern to African-Americans or other people of color, because, he says, neither man has any background or apparent intellectual interest in those areas. “If people’s hearts aren’t in the right place, then their intellects won’t be,” he said.

Like the Joint Education Committee report, Morial and Watkins also highlighted the need for significant investments in job training and adult education over the coming years to address the larger structural problems in the African-American community and resolve the apparent mismatch between skills and available jobs. Morial said, “People with long term or structural unemployment generally have high school education or less, and we need a significant, sustained investment in job training, community-based job training and adult education programs to even begin to think about changing the structural problems.” But at this stage, neither a targeted jobs program or a significant investment in targeted job training appears to be on the president’s agenda.

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