A Crisis Ignored

April 14, 2011

While the national unemployment rate is decreasing, it's on the rise for blacks. But it barely makes news.

By Kisha Bird and Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt

Headlines continue to trumpet news on the improving national employment picture. For the first time in two years, the country's unemployment rate dipped below 9 percent, falling to a two-year low of 8.8 percent in March.

Economists point to this other evidence to note the economy is in recovery. And it may very well be for a wide swath of the population. However, recovery is not occurring for everyone, and those who struggled most to find employment before the economic downturn collectively are worse off today than they were before the recession began.

This is most true for the black community. While the national unemployment rate fell for the fourth straight month, it actually increased in March by two-tenths of a percent for blacks and stands at 15.5 percent, nearly double the 7.9 percent unemployment average for whites. The increase among blacks was driven by a spike in unemployment for black men. It climbed to 16.8 percent from 16.2 percent (for black women, the rate decreased from 13 percent to 12.5 percent but is still disproportionately high). The unemployment rate for black youth (16 to 19) has also increased significantly from 38.4 percent to 42.1 percent.

If the double-digit unemployment rate for blacks, particularly the upward trajectory, were true for the entire nation, the headlines would be starkly different, and policymakers would be prepared to declare a national employment crisis. The political discourse likely would be focused on how to put people to work, including examining existing workforce development policies and job creation. But the black unemployment rate barely made a ripple.

The long-term implications for high unemployment are devastating for individuals, families and communities. The longer workers are unemployed, the less likely they are to find employment. Long periods of unemployment negatively affect wages. Worse, it perpetuates the conditions of poverty, especially for children and youth. 

Studies have shown that impoverished black boys are less likely to work as young adults. This means children in the disproportionately high number of black households where a parent is unemployed and financially struggling are at a disadvantage. Addressing high unemployment today will have immediate and long-term benefits.

Sociologists also assert that long-term unemployment has profound effects on mental health, which in turn actually makes it more difficult for individuals to seek or obtain new employment. Over time, the long-term unemployed are more susceptible to depression, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments that increase morbidity.

There are myriad examples of areas where there is high unemployment, high poverty and related social problems. Ward 8 is Washington D.C.'s poorest neighborhood and, ironically, sits less than four miles from influence and power brokers on Capitol Hill. In late March, the city government released unemployment figures that revealed Ward 8's January jobless rate of 25.2 is higher than any other U.S. metropolitan area with a labor force of comparable size.

Ninety-three percent of Ward 8's residents are black. Forty percent of all the city's teen homicides occur there. And at $44,076, median household income in Ward 8 is 39 percent of the $115,016 median household income for the entire city. Ward 8 is the "other" Washington D.C.  Across the nation, there are cities where a significant percent of the population collectively fares worse than average. There is the "other" Chicago, where blacks have the highest unemployment rates among the nation's 10 largest cities at 21. 4 percent and make 45 cents for every dollar that a white Chicagoan makes. In the "other"  Los Angeles, blacks have an unemployment rate of about 16 percent, and more than 30 percent are underemployed -  working low-wage or part-time jobs that don't provide benefits or access to a career pathway.

It is not enough merely to report these numbers. It is a crisis that calls for bold solutions such as federal policy and resources that support community-wide approaches to employment, education, and career pathways. 

Black youth, who have historically high unemployment rates, can benefit from summer and year-round jobs programs or other education and skills training programs that provide valuable work experience, build work history, and ultimately make them more employable. Low-skilled adults also need opportunity to access education and training to gain critical skills and credentials that lead to more stable jobs with family sustaining wages. Using strategies such as apprenticeships, internships, and on-the-job training, individuals can get the supports necessary to get and keep a job.

There are federal and state policies in place that support youth jobs, on-the-job training and other education and training programs. While not perfect, these programs are a critical lifeline. In many communities across the country, these resources are under threat because of shrinking state and city budgets.

Unfortunately, it seems the nation may be taking a step back. The House budget proposal for FY 2012 calls for cutting workforce development programs. While there are not yet details, calling for deep cuts to workforce development is counterproductive at a time when so many are struggling to find work. And it could be especially damaging for low-income blacks. Instead, policymakers should be focused on how to put people to work. We should not become complacent when the unemployment rate begins dropping for one group but rising for another. The high black unemployment rate is more than a footnote. It is a crisis that calls for attention.

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