Though it is an imperceptible uptick, the Black unemployment rate revealed in today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) monthly Employment Situation Summary is a blow nonetheless. With Black unemployment at 16.2 percent, it is clear that Black Americans remain in the back of the pack as the economy struggles to rebound. The Black unemployment rate is once again twice that of whites. A year ago Black unemployment stood at 15.3 percent and it only fell back to that level in February of this year, inching slowly upward since to the current level. The Black unemployment rate is deceptive given that the number of out-of-work Blacks is much higher as many have given up their job search in frustration and are not accounted for in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly survey since they are not claiming unemployment benefits, becoming part of the long-term jobless. Worse yet, is the persistence of joblessness among Black men, with an unemployment rate of 17.5 percent, and Black teenagers, age 16 to 19, with an unemployment rate of 40.7 percent.
The unemployment rate for Black teenagers is particularly troubling for two reasons. First, in many Black households, particularly among low-income families, wages earned by young adults contribute to the household income and meeting basic needs life food, utilities and rent. Second, with the summer vacation season approaching many communities, large and small, have eliminated youth summer employment programs due to budgetary constraints. The prospect of large numbers of unemployed youth with idle time over the summer months is cause for concern among families, civic leadership and local law enforcement agencies.
The overall unemployment rate for May was 9.1 percent. The white unemployment rate was 8 percent, showing the disparity between Blacks and whites in the labor market. While this situation has persisted for some time, the economic downturn has aggravated the situation and threatens to create a generation of unemployable Black Americans who may never gain their footing in the job market. The unemployment rate for white males stood at 7.9 percent and for white women, 7.1 percent. By comparison, Black women, currently the most “advantaged” in the labor market among Blacks with an unemployment rate of 13.4 percent, still lag far behind their white peers. The job market meltdown in the Black community could have serious long-term consequences on the economic status of Blacks compared to all other groups in the 21st century.
Behind the alarming Black unemployment rates is the dismal performance of the economy in May. According to the BLS report, the economy only generated 54,000 new jobs last month. That number is slightly better than the projection of the ADP National Employment Report, released on Wednesday, but still far below the level of activity that represents a true recovery. Employment in most industrial sectors – retail trade, transportation and warehousing, leisure and hospitality – showed little change in May. Employment in local government, a major source of jobs for Blacks, continued a downward trend, with 446,000 jobs lost since September 2008. Two sectors that showed some growth are health care and professional and business services. Health care employment was up by 17,000 in May and employment in professional and business services increased by 44,000 last month. Two major industrial sectors – manufacturing and construction – showed little change last month.
As the 2012 presidential campaign begins in earnest with Republicans lining up to take on President Obama, the economy is certain to figure as one of the most prominent issues of the campaign. The situation is reminiscent of 1992 when President George H. Bush was figuring favorably in public opinion polls over his handling of the Gulf War but was blindsided by anger over the faltering economy. Though President Obama has seen his poll numbers improve with the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. military Special Forces and is overseeing the withdrawal of active troops in Iraq, the economy is casting an ominous shadow over his reelection bid. One of the most difficult and complex issues for the President as he lays out his case for reelection will be Black unemployment as some Blacks, most notably scholar Dr. Cornel West, have openly criticized President Obama for his perceived lack of attention to his largest constituency. Over the last several months West and Rev. Al Sharpton have engaged in a spirited debate over the Obama record that has put on public display a philosophical divide within Black leadership over the most appropriate remedy to improve economic conditions for Black Americans.