With the public questioning his leadership on the economy, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, President Obama is on the defensive regarding the sluggish jobs numbers. Though it is early in the run up to the 2012 presidential election, the worst bit of news in the poll is that he is in a virtual tie with Republican Mitt Romney among all Americans, with the former Massachusetts governor leading slightly among registered voters. Nearly half of those surveyed strongly disapprove of the President’s handling of the economy and the deficit.
In the backdrop of the President’s troubles on the economy is a growing chorus of dissatisfaction within the Black community over the issue of unemployment despite the President’s still strong support among Black voters. The National Urban League has launched an aggressive national campaign to build support for its own job creation plan and will focus on jobs as the central theme of its annual convention in Boston next month. For months, some Blacks in leadership positions have been advocating, quietly and some quite vocally, for the President to launch a targeted effort to reduce Black unemployment. Given the sensitivities surrounding the nation’s first Black President around any effort that focuses on race, Mr. Obama has deflected any suggestion that he deploy a race-specific employment initiative. However, the grimness of the May Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly employment survey has prompted the administration to publicly acknowledge the depths of the unemployment crisis affecting Black Americans.
Yesterday, the Department of Labor issued a report titled, “The Black Labor Force in the Recovery,” detailing the status of Black workers. Last month the official Black unemployment rate was 16.2 percent, slightly lower than the recession peak of 16.5 percent in March and April 2010. When the recession began in 2007 the unemployment rate for Blacks was 8.3 percent compared to 4.1 percent for whites and 5.6 percent for Hispanics. Blacks began the recession significantly disadvantaged and the downturn only exacerbated the unemployment crisis. The report notes that nearly half (48.4 percent) of all unemployed Blacks remained so 27 weeks or longer in 2010 with a median duration of unemployment approaching 26 weeks. According to the report the unemployment rate for the nation peaked at 10.1 percent in October 2009 and for whites at 9.4 percent the same month.
The report notes that Black men have fared worse than all other groups except Black youth, with an unemployment gap with Black women of 4.5 percent. The unemployment rate for Black men in May 2011 was 17.5 percent and for women, 13.4 percent. The unemployment rate or Black teenagers, age 16 to 19, peaked at 49.2 percent in September of last year and was recorded at 40 percent last month. Blacks are the only racial group for which women represent a larger share of the employed than men. More than half (54.3 percent) of employed Blacks in 2010 were women. However, employed Black women earn less than employed Black men, a true dilemma given the extent of female headed households in the Black community.
Sectors Employing Blacks have taken Hit
The report also notes that key sectors of the economy that employed Blacks retrenched between 2007 and 2009, including manufacturing, financial activities, wholesale and retail trade, transportation and warehousing and construction. These industries accounted for nearly 1 million fewer Black workers in 2009 than in 2007. Additionally, downsizing in public sector employment has hit Blacks hard since Black workers are more likely to be employed in the sector than their white or Hispanic peers. In 2010, nearly 1 in 5 employed Blacks worked for government. Blacks are less likely to work in the private sector and only 3.8 percent of Blacks reported being self-employed in 2010 compared to 7.4 percent of whites. Blacks are underrepresented in higher paying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) occupations, representing only 7 percent of workers in mathematical occupations, 6.3 percent of life, physical and social science occupations and just 5.2 percent of jobs in architecture and engineering. Future job growth is projected in the health and social service industry, and professional and technical services, all areas requiring some education beyond high school and many occupations requiring a college degree or specialized training.
The forecasted growth areas is a vexing challenge since over the past decade the gap in the share of employed Blacks and whites who are college graduates has not narrowed and a 10 percentage point gap still exists. The report indicates that unemployment rates for Blacks was lowest among those with bachelor’s degrees, 7.9 percent, compared to those with only a high school diploma, 15.8 percent, and Blacks with less than a high school diploma, 22.5 percent. If Blacks are to take advantage of opportunities in growth employment sectors, education must be the priority in the Black community and education beyond high school the expectation and not the exception.
Where You Live Matters
While the employment crisis is affecting Blacks throughout the country, Black workers in some states are faring far worse than others. The highest Black unemployment rates are found in Wisconsin (25 percent), Michigan (23.9 percent), Minnesota (22 percent), Maine (24.1 percent) and the state of Washington (21.1 percent). Blacks are faring best in states with minimal Black populations – Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho, Hawaii, and New Hampshire. States with fairly large Black populations also produce the largest pool of Black unemployed, with two southern states – Georgia and Florida – recording the largest number, 226,000 each.
The Administration’s Case
The report concludes with a list of initiatives the Department of Labor has undertaken that have a direct impact upon Black workers and the unemployed, including youth and the formerly incarcerated. Though the aggregate number of Blacks served by these programs is small, the accounting of these programs is the Obama administration’s first public statement on the specific efforts it has undertaken to address the Black unemployment crisis. Given the criticism the President has come under recently for his perceived lack of attention to the plight of out of work Blacks, the report’s declaration that “more needs to be done to get Blacks or African-Americans back to work” is a message from the Obama White House that is late in coming.