When unemployment numbers were released on Friday, commentators reacted joyfully. Alan Krueger, who heads the White House Council of Economic Advisors, described the creation of 247,000 jobs as a victory because the predictions were that the economy would only generate 170,000 jobs. Unemployment rates went down to 7.7 percent, while predictions were that they would drop to 7.8 percent. Some might call this good news, but many might wonder who is affected by this good news.
A deeper examination of the unemployment data shows the disappointing reality that African American unemployment rates remained level, at 13.8 percent. Meanwhile, White unemployment rates fell to 6.8 percent and the rate for White men dropped to 6.3 percent. The racial disparities in unemployment rates are not new, but it is hypocritical to celebrate a drop in White unemployment rages, without noticing or mentioning the stagnation in Black unemployment rates.
More than new construction jobs were generated last month, but since Black unemployment rates remained level, that suggests that African Americans are not being brought into that industry (if at all) at the same rates that Whites. Implicitly, these data make the case for continued affirmative action, especially in well-paid jobs. In times of economic hardship, those hiring are inclined to look after their own instead of spreading the jobs around. And recent data suggests that African Americans enter the labor market with a shallower rolodex than Whites. Fewer contacts mean fewer job opportunities.
Whose employment situation has improved?
The number of long term unemployed remained level at 4.8 million people who have been unemployed for 37 weeks or more. To be sure, this is a drop from the 39 weeks of a year or so ago. Still, the situation for some of the unemployed has simply not improved. One of the reasons that the unemployment rate dropped is because 130,000 people dropped out of the labor force because they could not find jobs.
Eight million people work part-time for economic reasons. They would take full time work if only they could find it. The number of “marginally attached” workers stands at 2.4 million. If underutilized workers are included, the unemployment rate is 14.3 percent for everyone. If the relationship between underutilization and reported unemployment is the same for African Americans as for Whites, then the real unemployment rate is 25.5 percent, or almost a fourth, for African Americans. That’s alarming, yet as I watch televised reports on Black unemployment rates, this is unmentioned.
Black unemployment rates are at more than Depression levels, which ought to be completely unacceptable. It is not. Yet few are paying attention to the plight of the unemployed, underemployed, or out of the labor force Black worker. The White House and others love to talk about all of us being in the same boat. Yet some are hanging onto the board by their fingernails, and others are drowning. And some are struggling to row. Others are riding relatively smoothly through this recession, watching their situation improve.
CEA Chairman Krueger says the data from this employment report suggests that we are well on our way to economic recovery. From my perspective this recovery is neither robust nor inclusive. In order for this recovery to be fully celebrated, every sector of Americans should see their material conditions increase. They’ve increased for some. What about the others? Where are their advocates?
Too many African American leaders are asleep at the wheel when it comes to the employment situation. Unemployment rates become a line in their speeches, not a lode for their leadership. High unemployment rates explain why so many African Americans, at the economic margins, don’t support civil rights organizations. They are asking what’s in it for me.
What if huge numbers of unemployed people were mobilized? What if, in their economic misery, some rose up and demanded that Congress and others pay attention to their situation? To watch the situation of Whites improve, while Black unemployment rates remain the same, suggests that the vision of a post-racial society is extremely unrealistic. African American people are bearing a disproportion amount of pain in the current employment situation. Black people are starving, and it seems that no one, not even civil rights advocates, will act on their behalf.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.