“The hardest work in the world is being out of work.” – Whitney M. Young, National Urban League President 1961-1971
One of the advantages of my position as the president and CEO of the National Urban League is that I have both the opportunity and platform to speak to so many of our nation’s young people. I was presented with that same opportunity last week as a featured speaker of the Medgar Evers College Global Lecture Series. As I addressed that crowd of future lawyers, IT professionals and perhaps even a president of the National Urban League, it struck me that for a number of these students—our future workforce— they may encounter an America, and a job market, that is hostile to the principles of economic mobility on which our country was founded.
Five years after the widely-accepted end of the global economic downturn commonly known as the Great Recession, America’s economy inches ever closer to full recovery. In fact, the start of 2015 saw the most sustained period of job creation this century. But the dark cloud inside this silver lining is that too many people are still being left behind—particularly in our communities of color, where unemployment remains at a crisis level, even as our economy continues to rebound.
For Blacks and Latinos in America, the economic devastation of the Great Recession is as real today as it was when it began in 2007 and what we’ve found in our newly released 2015 State of Black America® report - “Save our Cities: Education, Jobs + Justice” is a mixed economics bag that reflects a stark tale of two Americas.
The U.S. economy added 295,000 jobs in February of this year. For the first time since 1997, we have seen 12 straight months of private-sector job growth above 200,000 and unemployment is down to 5.5 percent—its lowest rate since May 2008. But despite this encouraging news, the Black unemployment is twice that of white unemployment, wages are stagnant and many working people are not earning enough to make ends meet.
The Equality Index in the State of Black America® report catalogued Black, Hispanic and white unemployment and income inequality in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Overall, the Black unemployment rate was at 11.3 percent and the Latino unemployment rate stood at 7.4 percent versus a white unemployment rate of 5.3 percent. Of the 70 cities ranked for Black-white unemployment, almost half (33 cities) had a Black unemployment rate above 15 percent. In seven of those cities we discovered Great Depression era Black unemployment rates of 20 percent or higher.
It is clear that for far too many Blacks and Latinos, our nation’s economic recovery is only something they read or hear about. According to our analysis, America’s comeback is bypassing large swaths of people in Black and Brown neighborhoods—and that is dangerous—not only to those communities, but to our nation. A recovery that leaves millions of its citizens behind will ultimately threaten America’s sustained growth.
In a recent report on jobs and unemployment in the Black community, Economic Policy Institute economist Valerie Wilson said, “Even before the Great Recession, black unemployment has consistently been twice as high as white unemployment. To address this problem, we need to look beyond simply returning to the pre-recession status quo and implement policies aimed at ensuring that everyone who is willing and able to work has a job.” A central focus of the National Urban League is workforce development, and being in the business of creating jobs and proposing solutions to our longstanding challenges, our organization has advanced the following public-policy recommendations:
• Passage of a transportation infrastructure bill with a targeted jobs component.
• Passage a targeted, large-scale summer youth/young adult jobs bill.
• Raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
This week the U.S. Department of Labor will publish the March jobs report. Experts are predicting the numbers will show another strong month of job creation. While we applaud every stride our country makes in resuscitating our once battered economy, we remain vigilant—and concerned—about the disparity of access to these benefits among our nation’s citizens as revealed in the State of Black America® report (for more details and essays from leading figures on the economy, be sure to visit www.stateofblackamerica.org. I am concerned for all Americans, but especially for all the students I meet who live in those communities in crisis and are working so hard in their classrooms now while they dream of a better future.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.