Labor Day comes around every year and many people look forward to the long weekend and last-minute summer getaways. According to the Department of Labor, the holiday, celebrated on the first Monday in September, “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.”
This Labor Day, however, how many people can celebrate a holiday honoring hard work and labor if they themselves are unemployed?
On Friday, the U.S. Labor Department announced that 17,000 jobs were added to the economy in August, but the number of African-Americans who are out of work did not decrease. In fact, the African-American jobless rate climbed from 15.9 percent to 16.7 percent. So why, exactly, are the unemployment numbers still so high for African-Americans?
“There are clear institutional factors that plague Black access to employment. Lower employment rates clearly reduce the quality of job networks, since people often rely on friends or family members who are employed to help them look for jobs. Discrimination remains an unpleasant part of the story,” Assistant Secretary of Policy for the Department of Labor Dr. Bill Spriggs told BET.com.
In the July 2011 Labor Department report, “The Black Labor Force in the Recovery,”, Spriggs and his colleagues identified some key differences for the Black labor force, including the fact that Blacks are the only racial group in which women represent a larger share of the employed than do men — more than half (54.3 percent) of employed Blacks in 2010 were women, compared to 46.3 percent among employed whites. Additionally, nearly half (48.4) of all Blacks were without employment for 27 weeks or longer, compared to 41.9 percent of whites and 39.3 percent of Hispanics.
No matter your race, there’s almost no denying that African-Americans have been hit hardest by a failing economy, but many Blacks believe that there is still light at the end of the tunnel. A report released this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation stated that African-Americans are more optimistic than other races about the economy, though they have been the hardest hit. Eighty-five percent of Blacks said they were optimistic about the future course of the economy, while 72 percent of whites held that view.
But, how long can optimism last when jobs are not available? When asked what he was most shocked to learn from the Black labor force report, Spriggs replied, “… Black men are remaining optimistic about the economy. It was disturbing, however, that there was virtually no increase in the employment of Black men.”
Unfortunately, in a capitalist economy like America's, optimism does not necessarily equal opportunities for African-American unemployed workers but, perhaps, persistence fueled by optimism has led to increases in the labor force.
Spriggs explains that, since 1972, when data about African-American labor participation was first published on a monthly basis, the Black labor force has been growing in importance. Then, African-Americans made up fewer than 10 percent of the labor force and, today, they make up just shy of 12 percent. So, contrary to popular belief, America's Black labor force has grown over time. Therefore, in addition to the attention that needs to be paid to high Black unemployment, the specific problems facing Black workers, including the fact that Black women are, on average, paid less than Black men for the same job responsibilities, are growing more important to the overall measurements of how well the total labor force is doing.
A lot has been done to get people back to work but, according to Spriggs, there is more work to be done and many additional compromises to be made.
The Recovery Act may have helped to stop giant job losses, and there has been a continuous increase (over 2.4 million) in private-sector job growth, but Spriggs says that in order to get all people, especially the 16.7 percent of African-Americans who are jobless, back to work, both political parties must put aside their differences when solution-based discussions about unemployment, such as President Obama's upcoming Congressional Jobs Speech, arise.
“A repeat of the political bickering and gamesmanship from the debt-ceiling debate will only hurt American workers. So, we need cooperation in moving together as Americans in getting people back to work. The Black unemployment rate will only fall when we get employment growing faster,” he says.
Immediately following Labor Day, Spriggs says that Congress must act quickly to adopt the bi-partisan proposals that the president will announce on Thursday evening in order to continue increasing employment levels.
Though it appears to be easier said than done, as seen in previous heated debates in Congress, the most important approach to getting people back to work may be as simple as both sides of the aisle “getting along.”
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