For the second consecutive month the nation’s economy shed half a million jobs. December’s unemployment numbers, released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, were a fresh reminder of the depths of the current recession and the impact it is having upon millions of Americans across occupations. Still, as bad as the numbers for December were, and are, they only tell part of the story of what is occurring in the nation.
Last month the number of workers who worked part-time out of economic necessity reached 8 million, a figure that rose by 3.4 million in 2008. Among this group are people who would like to work full time but their hours were cut back or they could not find full time jobs. Then there are those individuals who are not in the labor force. These include 1.9 million people in December, up 564,000 from one year earlier. They are people who wanted and were available for work, and had actually looked for a job in the last 12 months. However, they are not counted as unemployed because they had not looked for a job in the four weeks preceding the monthly BLS survey.
Among these so-called “marginally attached” workers in December were 624,000 who are classified as “discouraged,” an increase of 279,000 from one year ago. These individuals are not currently looking for work because they believe there are no jobs available. The remaining 1.3 million marginally attached workers in December had not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey for reasons such as school or family responsibilities.
When the December numbers are peeled back a more accurate picture of the nation’s economy emerges. For one, the “official” unemployment rate does not reflect the extent of jobless in our country. Despite it hedging upward to 7.2 percent, the extent of joblessness is not conveyed. The “official” unemployment rate leaves out those individuals who are no longer seeking work, who are discouraged as well as workers who are underemployed and working part-time. Once the marginally attached are factored in the breadth of the recession begins to come into clear view.
This is particularly a tough time for Black workers, many of who had little job security in the first place and face longer periods of being without work. As unemployment among Black men (11.9 percent) and teenagers (33.7 percent) increases the road back for many of these individuals becomes that much harder. As they lose touch with the labor market, and their network of contacts, the search for a job becomes that much more difficult. And in a labor market flooded with workers the competition to get back in becomes tougher.
The implications for the larger community are huge. As more Blacks find themselves locked out of the labor market the impact will be felt in neighborhoods across the country. The first visible sign might be an exodus of homeowners unable to keep up with mortgage and property fees due to the loss of a job in the household. The same can be said of renters who find it impossible to pay rent once unemployed. There are other noticeable signs; fewer patrons at local business establishments, decreased participation in community activities and greater demands upon local hospital emergency care for routine symptoms.
As bad as that might sound, what could be worse is the mounting frustration of young adults who have few options to improve their economic situation. While teenage unemployment has skyrocketed, the notion of teenage workers is deceptive as it immediately invokes calls for summer employment programs. In many instances these teens are out of school and out of work, a condition that has been deemed “disconnected” by researchers, but their households need them to help cover basic expenses. In many instances the wages of teen earners is not a luxury but a necessity. As the ranks of jobless young adults swell the country may experience the same tensions that have resulted in conflicts in France and Greece.
The steady drumbeat of layoffs and business bankruptcies foretells difficult months ahead. Two industries in particular bear watching, the auto industry and retail. The latter is one that employs significant numbers of Black workers and the dismal holiday shopping season could result in a wave of layoffs and store closings. As grim as December’s numbers are, they do not reflect the full fallout in the retail sector as the loss of many seasonal jobs and employee layoffs will not be known until this month’s figures are released in early February. The auto industry is already on life support, with Chrysler and General Motors getting government assistance, and Ford, which did not seek aid, seeing its December numbers plummet. A failure of one of Detroit’s automakers would be a huge blow as the industry and its offshoots employs tens of thousands of Black workers.
The longer the recession holds, the more lasting the damage will be in the Black community. If current trends persist this recession could be devastating for many Black families and have long-term implications for the economic stability of much of the nation’s Black community.