Inside a day labor office, a group of African-American men wait for work, Chicago, Illinois, 1971. (Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)
Since the start of the Great Recession, the national unemployment rate peaked in 2010 with an annual average of 9.6 percent. Everyone would agree that 9.6 percent is a high rate of unemployment. From 2002 to 2005, however, before the Great Recession, the African-American unemployment rate was over 10 percent. Since 2008, the Black unemployment rate has exceeded 10 percent. My current projections are that the Black unemployment rate will continue to exceed 10 percent through 2015.
The sad fact is that for most of the past 50 years, the Black unemployment rate has been above 10 percent. While whites have experienced short periods of high unemployment, high unemployment has been a consistent feature of African-American life.
Americans should strive for an economy where everyone who wants a job can find a job. In the last 50 years, the American economy has done a fairly decent job at producing work for white Americans, but it has not done well by African-Americans. The Black unemployment rate has consistently been about twice the white rate.
All Americans would benefit from more African-Americans working. The more economically productive African-Americans are the stronger economically the country is. The lowest Black poverty rate on record corresponds to the lowest Black unemployment rate on record. More jobs for Blacks means less poverty for Blacks. Poor children do worse in school than middle-class children. By increasing employment for Blacks, we produce a better-educated and more productive American workforce. Economic disadvantage is a factor behind street crime. More employment, better wages, and less poverty in Black communities would lead to safer streets and lower prison costs for all.
We have forgotten that one goal of the Civil Rights Movement was for full employment — an economy where everyone who wants a job can find a job. The 1963 March on Washington where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech was, officially the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The call for “jobs” had a prominent place. When King died he was still planning the Poor People’s Campaign which had full employment as its number one goal.
African-Americans will not be able to conquer poverty or the many problems that stem from poverty while experiencing high unemployment. It is for this reason that jobs was—and remains—an important civil rights goal. President Obama’s recent jobs proposals which are projected to create nearly three million jobs for the country as a whole over the next two years is first step in the right direct, but much more will be necessary.
Algernon Austin directs the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy (PREE). PREE works to advance policies that enable people of color to participate fully in the American economy and benefit equitably from gains in prosperity. As director of PREE, Austin oversees reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color.
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