It was more of the same in the jobs market for Black Americans as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) latest Employment Situation summary reveals. The data for January, released today by the employment research division of the U.S. Department of Labor, reveals a drop in the overall unemployment rate of 0.4% (to 9 percent) and a decline in total nonfarm payroll employment of 36,000 jobs. The brutal winter weather across a large swath of the nation is being blamed for the sluggish economic performance last month.
What has remained consistent is the relative disadvantage Blacks face in the labor market. Black unemployment was relatively unchanged last month at 15.7 percent, and the numbers beneath that number show the degree to which Black Americans are being left behind. Black male unemployment was 16.5 percent and 12.9 percent for Black women. The unemployment rate for Black young adults of both sexes, age 16 to 19, was 45.4 percent. Conversely, white unemployment for the month of January was 8 percent, and 7.9 percent and 7 percent for white men and women respectively. White young adults faced a 22.8 percent unemployment rate. The unemployment rate for individuals of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity was 11.9 percent. As has been the case since the start of the recession, Black Americans are taking the biggest hit during this historic economic downturn.
Last month employment in manufacturing increased by 49,000 jobs, with the largest gains recorded for the sector in motor vehicle manufacturing and parts. These numbers come as Detroit looks to hire more workers but the auto industry is hinting that many of the new hires will be contract employees. Employment in retail trade increased by 28,000; with gains in the sector coming in hiring in clothing stores (+15,000). Construction took a hit last month, possibly due to the severe winter weather, shedding 32,000 jobs. There was also a downward slide in employment in transportation and warehousing, with a decline of 38,000 jobs in January that the BLS attributes to layoffs among couriers and messengers.
These numbers make it difficult for Black Americans to embrace President Obama’s plea for the nation to “win the future,” that he urged during his recent State of the Union address. The future is difficult for many Blacks to ponder in light of the ground lost during the recession. Since many Blacks were already faring badly when the recession began, their further descent makes their recovery even that much more difficult. While the official unemployment numbers for Blacks is almost twice that of whites, there are considerable numbers of Black Americans who are now chronically or long-term jobless. These are individuals who have little hope that they will find a job, have stopped looking for work, and are not counted as part of the monthly unemployment figure because they are not part of the BLS survey. When factoring in the long-term jobless, the recovery for the Black community is hard to fathom with no jobs or plan in sight to boost the ranks of the employed.
In his monthly address President Obama spoke of the need to focus on three areas: innovation, education and investment in emerging sectors of the economy. On paper, the approach sounds fine and is in keeping with what many economists believe must happen to kick-start the nation’s economy. The challenge Blacks face is that many of the traditional sectors of the economy that provided good-wage jobs have either disappeared or face serious cutbacks. The Black middle class that emerged in the nation during the last century was primarily attributable to employment in government, the auto industry and other manufacturing sectors, and public service jobs, such as teaching, that has significantly retrenched. Combined with the decline in the quality of education in many of the nation’s urban public school districts, resulting in an escalation of the dropout rate, the economic transformation of the country has left generations of Blacks unprepared to enter the changing labor market. At the same time, the financial stability of Black families that was attributable to home ownership has eroded as the housing market crumbled and many Blacks fell prey to foreclosures or the threat of eviction.
The ongoing debate among many Blacks encircling the Beltway is whether the Obama administration has missed the boat on the question of jobs, and specifically on the issue of Black unemployment. The general consensus of political observers is that the Obama presidency is being defined by the economic crisis. Even if the economy does rebound as we get closer to the 2012 presidential campaign, will Blacks experience a bump too? If not, will the President lose significant political support from his own base as Black voters who might still express affection for Mr. Obama demonstrate their unhappiness with their economic status through lackluster voter turnout? The popularity of the President in the Black community will be tested if Blacks sense they have been left behind, again, no matter the color of the occupant of the Oval Office.