When the December employment figures became public last Friday, the number of jobs lost in the last month in 2009 was the focus of much attention. The Obama administration was hoping that the data would show job losses in the 20,000 range but was stunned when the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary showed the economy had shed 85,000 jobs to end the year. It was a very stark reminder that the nation was still in the grips of a historic recession that is showing little sign of abating. The numbers also put further pressure on a presidential administration that is struggling to turn the corner on the economy, and still defending the economic recovery package it championed.
What the December numbers also reveal is the depths to which Blacks in this nation have suffered since the start of the recession. Already at a relative disadvantage compared to whites in the labor market, Blacks have borne the brunt of the economic downturn and are in a depression relative to other groups. The unemployment rate for Blacks in December was 16.2 percent, compared to 15.6 percent in November, and 9 percent for whites. White unemployment, seasonally adjusted, decreased between November and December. The unemployment rate for Black men stood at 16.6 percent in December, a figure relatively identical to November. The rate for Black women increased to 13.1 percent last month, an increase from 11.7 percent in November. There was a slight improvement for Black teenagers, 16 to 29 years old, but their rate still was astronomical at 48.4 percent. Overall, the nation’s unemployment rate was 10 percent for December and there were 15.3 million unemployed persons.
As the debate rages over the effectiveness of President Obama’s economic stimulus package, what is difficult to dispute is the degree to which Black Americans, from all socio-economic strata are now shut out of the labor market. The fact that large numbers of whites have joined the ranks of the unemployed has made it that much harder for Blacks. Whether long-term unemployed or recently unemployed due to workforce downsizing, Blacks are seeing many of the gains of a prior decade wiped away. In the greatest of ironies, the election of the nation’s first Black President, while emotionally uplifting, has produced little in terms of economic relief for Blacks in general.
A winter of discontent
After spending much of the fall focused on health care reform, President Obama turned his attention to jobs in early December when he convened a White House summit. Facing mounting criticism that his administration had not done enough to stem the loss of jobs, the President, since the summit, has sought to convey his resolve to turn the economy around during his first term. There has been little evidence though of any targeted initiative to address Black joblessness, and President Obama has repeatedly turned away from any race-based remedy to address the recession. The President’s posture has created unease among Black leadership, and many of his Black supporters, who are protective of Mr. Obama and cringe at criticism directed toward him. Subtle cracks, however, are visible in the protective armor Blacks have wrapped around President Obama as some are now openly questioning his resolve to tackle a problem that is driving a racial disparity.
A particularly disturbing aspect of the unemployment crisis in the Black community is the degree to which young adults are being left with few options to become gainfully employed. For many young people who are not enrolled in school, there is very little opportunity to work at a wage sufficient to allow them to be self-supportive. In many instances youth who are 16 to 24 years-old are contributing to their household’s income and some have parental responsibilities. For most Black young adults who are out of work, families are not able to provide a cushion until they find work. The lack of income leaves many youth with no options and is a factor in criminal behavior and, once incarcerated, high recidivism rates.
The answer to the problem is not at all clear. When the unemployment numbers were released, the White House quickly put the best face on the data, claiming that, despite the larger than expected number of job losses, the overall trend was still indicative of an improving economy. President Obama also reiterated his resolve to push a jobs agenda. What is missing are the specifics concerning a plan to tackle the Black unemployment crisis. The President has expressed his belief, on more than one occasion, that by stimulating economic growth all groups will benefit. That belief belies the reality of the labor market, as Black unemployment has generally been twice that of whites, or nearly that proportion, even during periods of relatively stability in the economy. The decades-old trend of diminishing jobs in the manufacturing sector and other blue-collar occupations has helped drive the number of Black unemployed. The collapse of the automobile industry is an example of how the downturn in one sector has proved disastrous for Blacks. For several generations of Black workers Detroit was the gateway to the middle class, providing good wage jobs with substantial benefits. The implosion in the auto industry has cut off just one more important avenue for economic mobility for Black workers at a time when there are fewer and fewer options.
One possible response to the Black unemployment crisis is a large-scale public works program, modeled after the Roosevelt era WPA effort. It is an idea that has been frequently put forth but one that the White House has yet to embrace, perhaps because of the controversy over the stimulus package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing for a huge jobs initiative but Republicans on the Hill have been united in opposition. The area that is most often discussed for such a program is transportation infrastructure, as it is generally acknowledged that the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels, and railways are in dire need of repair and improvement. These jobs most often provide high wages too. For Blacks the obstacle to these jobs is generally labor unions. For as much progress was made breaking down union barriers in the auto industry, tremendous resistance still exists in the construction trades. This is so even as the rhetoric of some in the labor movement suggests a thawing of resistance to Black workers.
Absent a government driven jobs program, there appears to be little that can be done in the private market to spur the hiring of Black workers. With many middle class whites facing job losses, the competition for jobs even at the low end of the wage scale is more intense. Unemployed Blacks are now likely to be pushed even further down the hiring chain as the pool of skill ready and experienced white workers grows due to the recession.