The Real Deal on Black Unemployment
Every month, when unemployment rate data are released, the news for African Americans is bleak. No matter what the overall unemployment rate is (5.6 percent in June), the Black unemployment rate is higher. Indeed, it is usually at least twice the White rate. In June 2004, for example, the White unemployment rate was 5 percent, but the Black unemployment rate was 10.1 percent.
On its face, that data is bleak enough, and the 2:1 ratio has been steady in good times and in bad times. But a recent study from the Community Service Society of New York suggests that we look at a far more compelling statistic to get the real deal on Black unemployment.
The relevant statistic is the “employment population ratio,” a figure that measures what percentage of the total population in a certain age group has employment. When the CSC measured the employment population ratio in New York City in 2003, they found that only 51.8 percent of African American men between 16 and 65 held jobs. That means that nearly half of all African American men did not have jobs. By comparison, 75.7 percent of White men in New York held jobs that year, meaning that fewer than one in four of them did not hold jobs.
There are lots of reasons why men choose not to work. Some are in school, others are ill, and some may have taken early retirement. But the gap between the number of Black men without work and White men without work is astounding. What would happen if half of all White men did not have jobs? Can you imagine, from a policy perspective, how people would respond and what would happen? Would there be a revolution? A refocusing of national priorities? A massive jobs creation program? If this would happen in response to high White joblessness, why doesn’t it happen in response to high levels of Black joblessness?
I am suggesting two things here — one is that we look at joblessness as the operative statistic, instead of unemployment, looking at those in a community who do not have jobs, not simply those who are technically unemployed. If we look at joblessness, we find something of a crisis in the African American community. To be sure, the New York number is higher than the national number, but joblessness is acute in inner cities, and especially among African American men. Nationally, the employment population ratio for White men is 71.9 percent, lower than the New York rate, and the Black employment population ratio is 63.1 percent, or a bit higher than the New York rate. This still means that the level of unemployment among African Americans is 37 percent compared to 30 percent for Whites. It still means that the levels for African Americans are too high.
Once we embrace joblessness as the operative statistic, my second point about joblessness is that we look at its root causes, as this is where the higher education community is important. One of the reasons for high joblessness, clearly, is the education gap between African Americans and Whites. The education gap needs to be addressed, and there need to be vigorous attempts to enroll more African Americans in higher education.
The issue was made painfully clear by Harvard Professors Charles Ogletree and Dr. Gary Orfield when they presented a talk, “Civil Rights and the Election: Challenges, Choices and Consequences,” at a DNC Black Caucus meeting at the recent Democratic Convention. Ogletree and Orfield talked about the many gaps that exist in our society, with one being the racial gap in high school graduation rates. According to one table that Ogletree and Orfield circulated, Black male graduation rates have plummeted to less than half. While there were questions about the data set that produced these results, this same data set showed a 70 percent graduation rate for White men, a gap that is unacceptable. The combination of racial, educational and economic gaps with the criminalization of minority youth leaves a bleak picture that can only be countered by a paradigm shift in the way our society deals with the education and employment of the African American community.
It is relevant that this discussion was being held at the Democratic Convention, where the excitement for the Kerry-Edwards ticket was tempered by the fact that African American people face gaps in both Democratic and Republican administrations. To be sure, Democrats have not shown the hostility that this Bush administration has to African Americans. At the same time, the economic marginality of the African American community remains a constant in American life. Some will call the roll of African American millionaires to counter this fact, but after the roll is called, still 25 percent of African American households, and more than 40 percent of African American children, live in poverty.
Much of this comes down to joblessness. Too many African American households have marginal ties, if any, to the labor market, and few policy-makers think this is a crisis. Yet, our entire society is affected if this notion of permanent joblessness is accepted. How will this new joblessness affect higher education? It is a question worth pondering.
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