Sunday, November 4, 2012

The African-American Unemployment Crisis Continues

The American labor market continued its steady recovery in October, as the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the economy added 171,000 jobs last month. The nation’s unemployment rate is now 7.9 percent, and there is an unquestionable recovery taking place. Lost in the positive news, though, is that the unemployment rate for African-Americans rose nearly a full point to 14.3 percent, up from 13.4 percent in September.
The black unemployment rate has fallen from its Great Recession peak of 16.7 percent, but it’s at the same level it was in October 2011, even though the nation’s overall unemployment rate has fallen more than a full point since then. As this chart from The Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal shows, black unemployment averaged 8.6 percent before the recession:

And while the 7.9 percent overall unemployment rate is still too high, it would represent a historical low for blacks, whose unemployment rate has been over 10 percent for most of the last 50 years:


Austerity policies that have crunched federal and state governments partially explain the problem. Blacks are more likely than whites to work in the public sector, meaning the loss of more than 600,000 government jobs at the federal, state, and local levels has disproportionately impacted them. The public sector shed another 13,000 jobs in October.

Had the government kept pace with previous levels of job creation, the overall unemployment rate would be a full point lower than it is today. It stands to reason that black workers, one-in-five of whom work in the public sector, would have filled a significant amount of those jobs.

The larger story, though, is that high black unemployment is a structural problem that has resulted from centuries of less access to education and higher-paying jobs. Sixty years after the Supreme Court officially desegregated American schools, they remain largely segregated along racial and economic lines. Students from low-income, low-education backgrounds, more likely to be black, are less likely to go to college; even high-achieving students at low-income schools are less likely to attend college than similar students at high-income schools. And black students are more likely to fall on the wrong side of the growing education gap between the rich and the poor.

That has created a cycle of rising income inequality that was only exacerbated by the recession, when the wealth gap between black and white families doubled (blacks weretwice as likely to have been hit by the housing crisis as whites, thanks in part to discriminatory lending policies). Declining unionization rates are more likely to hurt black workers, and cuts to all sorts of social programs, from public transportation to the safety net, have made it harder for black workers to participate fully in the economy.

This is nothing short of a crisis. And unlike the unemployment crisis that has afflicted the United States since the Great Recession began, it is not one that will be addressed simply by fostering economic growth.

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