Why Is Black Unemployment Rising?

African-American lawmakers offer some answers.

Posted: 04/01/2011 05:16 PM EDT

The news that the African-American unemployment rate rose to 15.5% from 15.3% while the overall rate dropped to its lowest level in two years is disheartening. It would be easy to blame the yawning gap between the overall jobless rate of 8.8% and the Black unemployment rate on race, but according to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), education may play a much more pivotal role in closing that gap.

“There’s no way you can look at the figures where the African-American rate is almost double that of the overall population and not at least wonder if race has a part to play in that,” he told BET.com. “But a key factor is that all of the statistics show that the less education you have, the more the recession hurts you and people need to keep that in mind.”

The correlation between education and employment is true of every race, but it is particularly so in African-American communities where the high school dropout rate is higher and college entry rates are lower. In 2008, the high school dropout rate for Blacks was 9.9%, almost double that of whites.

Cummings believes that Congress should be doing more to establish retraining programs. In addition, he said, local community colleges could make a big dent in Black unemployment through programs that retrain people who’ve lost their jobs for employment in other industries or new jobs in the sector they just left.

“We have to fight for retraining dollars and fight for jobs,” Cummings said, because the House Republican majority is “bent on making sure that training dollars are substantially reduced.”

South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott, one of the chamber’s two African-American lawmakers, echoed Cummings’s thoughts about the role education plays in one’s ability to stay employed. In his district, the unemployment rates range from 9% to close to 13%.

“When you look at the overall population, you’ll find an amazing [disparity] based on where you live and what level of education you’ve achieved,” Scott said. The fact is, he added, that the unemployment rate for people with college degrees is 4% while the rate for people who only have a high school degree is closer to 14%.

In Rep. Lacy Clay’s Missouri district, the overall unemployment rate is approximately 8%. But for African-American males, the rate is astronomically high at 20%. Friday’s jobs figures highlight the need for a new approach to dealing with Black unemployment, he said.

“We need a plan that specifically targets the African-American community, and males in particular,” the Democrat said. “Let’s give them the necessary skills to find new lines of work that include job training.”

 (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)