The May Employment Situation Summary Report, released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), presents a schizophrenic picture of the nation’s economy. In a reversal of sorts, employment fell by just 345,000 jobs, about half the average monthly decline for the previous six months. This slowdown in job losses might be an indication that the economic downturn may be bottoming out with the brunt of mass layoffs already in effect. Still, the spike in the nation’s unemployment rate to 9.4 percent, from 8.9 percent in April, suggests that the nation’s economy is not out of the woods.
Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the number of unemployed has increase by 7 million and the unemployment rate has grown by 4.5 percent. The recession has taken a real toll upon Blacks in the labor market. Last month Black unemployment was at 14.9 percent as compared to whites at 8.6 percent. The economic dislocation in the Black community is evident when surveying conditions in cities across America and take into account which industries have been most effected by the recession. The collapse of the auto industry alone portends an economic disaster for many Black households whose economic security was tied to automobile manufacturing and its vendors. Perhaps no other city exemplifies the state of emergency than Detroit, or Flint, where generations of Blacks gained middle class status through work tied to the U.S. automobile industry. As those jobs vanish, and others in banking and retail, Black households will undoubtedly feel the effects; as will neighborhoods that begin to experience waves of home foreclosures and local hospitals that become a primary health care option for dislocated workers who lose their health benefits.
A closer look at the unemployment figures reveals the severity of the crisis for Black Americans. While overall Black unemployment stood at 14.9 percent, Black male unemployment was 16.8 percent last month. The latter represents a persistent issue that has yet to gain the attention of policy makers in the nation’s capital. Black men are becoming increasingly detached from the labor market and this situation poses innumerable problems for the larger community and the stability of Black households. By comparison, white male unemployment was 9 percent in May. This is not a new phenomena but a long standing disparity that has also fueled mass imprisonment, family dysfunction and gender conflicts in the Black community. While fairing substantially better than men, the unemployment rate for Black women at 11.2 percent was still significantly higher than white women (6.9 percent).
Another sub-group in the Black community that has been hit hard is Black teenagers. In May, Black teenage unemployment, for teens of both sexes age 16 to 19 years, was 39.4 percent. The rate for white teenagers was 20.4 percent. In many instances, in lower income families, wages earned by teenagers contribute to the maintenance of the household. At any time unemployment that skirts 40 percent is at crisis level but particularly so as we approach the summer months. With hundreds of thousands of Black youth out of school and college for the summer recess, and no jobs available or competing with laid-off adults, the flood of teenagers in our communities could have negative consequences.
The most chilling aspect of May’s employment numbers are the numbers that aren’t reported. The official unemployment statistics only capture those individuals who are actively seeking work or are drawing unemployment benefits. There are millions of unemployed workers who have given up or are “discouraged,” as the official BLS designation denotes, and are not counted among the unemployed because they believe there are no jobs available. In May there were 792, 000 discouraged workers among 2.2 million who were “marginally attached.” The marginally attached are not counted as unemployed because they had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They are not counted among the unemployed because they did not look for work in the 4 weeks preceding the BLS survey. In other words, the “official rate” does not tell the full extent of joblessness, particularly in the Black community. If the numbers of individuals who have simply dropped out of the job hunt, not for not wanting but belief that no work existed, are incorporated, Black unemployment would likely creep upward in the high teens.