Over the last several weeks, there has been varying indicators of the beginnings of an economic recovery, with one economist even declaring that the recession is over. Despite some positive trend data, the picture has not brightened for Black Americans in the labor force. Throughout the country, and most noticeably in the nation’s cities, Blacks have been hit hard by the historic recession that has decimated several industries, auto manufacturing among the worse, where Blacks had made inroads into higher-wage jobs. As companies downsize and entire industries shrink, employment options are few for tens of thousands of Black workers who have invested years of labor only to end up on the unemployment line with few marketable skills in today’s knowledge-based economy.
This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation report for August reveals the mixed picture of the American economy. Last month 216,000 jobs were shed in the economy and the overall unemployment rate climbed to 9.7 percent. Though the total jobs lost continued to show signs of slowing down, the unemployment rate is reflected the lag effect of retrenchments. Though it appears we may have encountered the worst of the mass layoffs that drove the monthly job loss numbers into the stratosphere for months, it is clear that we have not yet reached the plateau of unemployment. Worse, the numbers simply do not reflect the true extent of joblessness as the official unemployment rate only speaks to individuals who have filed unemployment claims and are actively searching for work.
The BLS’s August report indicates that Black unemployment stands at 15.1 percent compared to whites at 8.9 percent. Although not quite twice that of white unemployment, Blacks are still faring far worse than any other group during this downturn. Within the Black community Black males at 17 percent unemployment and teenagers, age 16 to 19, at 34.7 percent are facing the most difficult challenge finding work. By comparison, the unemployment rate for white males and teenagers is 9.3 percent and 24.1 percent respectively. In relative terms, Black women (11.9 percent) have fared better though they too persistently lag behind their white counterparts.
The fallout in the economy can be better understood when looking at developments within industries and across sectors. In August construction employment declined by 65,000 jobs. Employment in the industry has declined by 1.4 million jobs since the start of the recession. For Black Americans, losses in this industry may not be as significant since much of this work is still dominated by white males and Blacks have made few significant inroads despite persistent attempts to crack the construction trades. Manufacturing employment also continued to trend downward last month, declining by 63,000. Job losses in manufacturing have slowed with a significant portion of the loss attributable to losses in automobile manufacturing and parts suppliers.
Employment in retail trade and professional and business services, two areas where Blacks are well represented, showed little change in August from previous months activities. The same is true for transportation and warehousing, and leisure and hospitality. There even appears to be a slowing of losses in the financial services sector. Last month the sector shed 28,000 jobs but the losses were spread across industries. The BLS reports that job losses in financial services have slowed since the beginning of the year.
The one sector that continues to show growth is health care, which should come as no surprise to anyone following the current debate on health care reform on Capitol Hill. In August the sector gained 28,000 jobs with jobs added in ambulatory care, nursing and residential care. Employment in hospitals changed little in August. The sector has added over a half million jobs since the start of the recession but employment has been relatively flat in health care since May.
A continuing challenge to the Obama administration will be how to assist the most economically impacted workers, such as Black men, while at the same time attending to the needs of other displaced workers. In many instances Blacks have been the last hired in the workplace and remain low in the pecking order of workers laying claim to new jobs. It is a particularly thorny problem for President Obama as many Blacks have seemingly avoided direct criticism of him and appear to be exercising patience in venting any frustrations. The goodwill the nation’s first Black President enjoys among Blacks might be tested in the months to come if there does not appear to be any systemic effort to address long-term joblessness among Blacks.