Commentary: Unemployment Declines, But Why Not for Black America?

Commentary: Unemployment Declines, But Why Not for Black America?

With the national decline in unemployment, African-Americans are again left out of the improved economic picture. Why?

Published January 6, 2012

The unemployment figures have produced the welcome news that the nation’s jobless rate dropped to 8.5 percent in December, the lowest it has been in nearly three years.


But the report by the Department of Labor also revealed the news that Black unemployment had inched upward from 15.5 percent to 15.8 percent. It is a stinging reminder of how African-Americans continue to remain outside of the nation’s economic mainstream.


Black unemployment is consistently, stubbornly high, often nearly twice the rate of overall joblessness in the country. But, why, when nearly 200,000 Americans have found employment and the overall unemployment rate dropped, are more Black workers left out of the improved economic picture?


For one thing, African-Americans have been disproportionally affected by the decline in public sector employment. That decrease has occurred within the federal government, but far more dramatically at the state government level and local level. In many states — largely those led by Republican governors and legislatures, cutting public sector jobs has been a major agenda item.


In all of 2011, nearly 250,000 state and local government employees lost their jobs, with the burden falling hard on public school teachers. And economists and employment experts said that the losses in public sector employment are likely to continue in 2012.


In fact, the recent recession has caused a massive downsizing of workers employed by state and local government. About 650,000 people have been laid off of public sector jobs in the country since 2008, as governments have sought to balance their budgets amid lower tax revenues.


Another factor is that as some private sectors have shed their workforce, Black Americans have also been disproportionally affected, because they tend to be less senior and, therefore, seen as more expendable by their employers.


And because they are less senior and have often faced more than one layoff, many Black workers find themselves less attractive to potential employers. In short, being the last hired and first fired has some tangible disadvantages for one's longterm employment prospects.


Furthermore, there are some industries that, despite increases in job hiring, have a tradition of low employment levels for Black workers. In December, for example, even the beleaguered construction industry added a modest 17,000 workers. But construction is a field that is largely underrepresented by African-American workers. That has had a particular impact on Black male unemployment, which is even higher than overall Black uneployment.


What might ease the unemployment rate among Black Americans is recognition at all government levels that there are specific needs that should be undertaken in curbing joblessness. Moreover, there is an urgent need to develop programs that specifically target urban communities of color to provide the resources in education and training.


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(Photo: Jason Reed/Landov)

Written by Jonathan P. Hicks


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