Who is to Blame for Black Unemployment?
The black unemployment twice that of whites. Why is it so high?
For the past year and a half, Kerryanne Mayers and her son Zaire have been living in a shelter in the Bronx. Mayers, 28, has been unemployed since 2009. In 2008, she enrolled in a dental assistant course hoping to find a job to support herself and her then infant son. But the school was a sham, and Mayers never found a job because she had not been properly trained. She has worked seasonal jobs, making minimum wage cleaning New York City parks, but was ultimately forced into the shelter system because she cannot pay rent on the $80 a week she receives in unemployment benefits. Though, in the past few months, she has sent out dozens of resumes each week, she cannot find work.
“It’s a little frustrating. It’s tiring,” says Mayers, of her inability to find a job. “It makes you emotionally tired when you have to depend on help.”
One of the roadblocks President Barack Obama faces for reelection is unemployment. The unemployment rate, announced Friday, is high—8.1 percent for the general population, and 14.1 percent for African Americans. The last time a Democratic incumbent faced a Republican challenger with black unemployment this high was when Jimmy Carter faced off against Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter lost.
Black unemployment has always been roughly double that of white unemployment, regardless of the economic climate.
“Sadly, this is not a new problem,” says Algernon Austin, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute. “The black unemployment rate ranges from bad to abysmal. Right now we are closer to the abysmal range.”
But, though the gap between white and black unemployment figures has always been large, President Obama has been held more to task over the black unemployment rate than his predecessors, and has been criticized by many black leaders for not doing enough to help African Americans find jobs.
A year ago, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told Politico: “There are roughly 3 million African Americans out of work today, a number nearly equal to the entire population of Iowa. I would suggest that if the entire population of Iowa, a key state on the electoral map and a place that served as a stop on the president’s jobs bus tour, were unemployed, they would be mentioned in the president’s speech and be the beneficiary of targeted public policy.”
President Obama, who pointed out a few weeks ago that he is, “not the president of black America,” did not mention unemployment directly in his speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night, but has said that his goal is to help all Americans, rather than focusing specifically on African Americans: “My general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats, as long as it is also supported by, for example, strategies around college affordability and job training, tax cuts for working families as opposed to the wealthiest that level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth. And I'm confident that that will help the African American community live out the American Dream at the same time that it's helping communities all across the country.”
But is that enough? And is President Obama really the one to blame for the dismal black unemployment numbers?
Racism, and a Caustic Congress
One obvious explanation for high black unemployment numbers is racism. This is by no means the only factor, but experts say that blacks are typically the “last hired, first fired,” as evidenced by the fact that unemployment figures for African Americans tend to start to rise earlier and stay higher longer than those of whites. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 35,395 people filed race-based discrimination charges in 2011.
One of the places that African Americans have typically found work, even during the segregated 60s, is the public sector. A 2010 Center for Labor Research and Education report showed that from 2008 to 2010, 21.2 percent of all black workers were public employees.
But when Republicans took control in many states after the 2010 midterm elections, they started cutting public sector jobs.
“The black middle class depends a great deal on public sector jobs. Without aid to state and local governments, we will continue to see a shrinking of the fragile black middle class,” says Austin.
Some feel that Republicans are getting rid of public sector jobs as a political move, specifically designed to target African Americans.
Lee Saunders, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, told the Huffington Post. “In some sort of sick way, some of these ultra conservatives think that if you hurt African Americans and they are laid off and can't find work that there may be negative implications for the 2012 presidential election. If you have a lot of people who are frustrated, maybe it is going to be very hard to get your base out to vote.”
But placing the blame for the persistently high black unemployment figures on President Obama would not be fair. Austin says that the president is an easy scapegoat, but in reality, there is little that he or any president can do about unemployment without Congress’ support.
“Unfortunately, the president cannot act if Congress opposes him,” says Austin. “The American Jobs Act has good infrastructure investments, aid to state and local governments, and other good proposals, but conservatives in Congress are more interested in hurting the president than helping the country.”
With the latest disappointing unemployment figures, pundits are now saying what Waters said last year—that these numbers will indeed impact the president’s chances of reelection:
“If the unemployment rates in the African American community continue to climb, like they did in August by almost a full percentage point, those African American voters who came out to the polls for the first time in 2008 but who have since lost their home and/or their job, may not return to the polls. Therefore, targeting public policy to a community who accounted for 13 percent of the electorate in ‘08, and who is now experiencing the culmination of a decade of economic crisis, is not just good policy, but good politics.”
The pundits may well be wrong. What is interesting is that studies show that President Obama still has a high level of support from African Americans. Respondents in our State of the Black Economy survey still overwhelmingly support President Obama.
Mayers says she does not blame the president for her predicament, and has taken out loans and enrolled at Hostos Community College to study early childhood education so that she can hopefully find not just a job, but have a career. Still, she says that many of the people she has met in the shelter have had parents and grandparents on unemployment, so that they do not know any other way to live.
“Living in this situation, you meet other people who are living on public assistance as a way of life because their mom did,” says Mayers. “My mindset is to finish my education so I don’t have to apply for public assistance. I said that to someone and they said, “You’re crazy!” They think it’s the city’s responsibility to take care of them and their four kids. They don’t understand that normal people work and pay bills.”
While Mayers does not blame President Obama outright, she does feel that the governmental programs designed to help the unemployed are inadequate. In order to collect her unemployment and other benefits, Mayers must participate in a “Back to Work” program. She goes into an office each week and spends hours looking for jobs online—a task she says she could easily do at home—but her issue is that these are seasonal or minimum wage jobs that do not really offer any long term security. To her, the program is a revolving door—people find jobs but inevitably end up unemployed again. Mayers says the government would have greater success by helping people to pay for an education that would allow them to find more sustainable work.
“The people at the shelter said school is not a priority,” she says. “The city pays $3000 a month for me to stay here. You do have to blame the government, because they could spend money on some kind of education as part of this program. There should be short term goals and long terms goals so you can get out of the system and stay out of system.”
Experts agree that the key to lowering black unemployment figures is for the government to take a holistic approach, focusing not just on job creation, but education as well.
But the primary focus, Austin says, is really job creation, and politicians need to work together to improve the economy as a whole, and also to create policies that target poor, urban areas to create economic opportunities for the people living there.
“The federal government—the president and Congress working together—and the Federal Reserve can positively or negatively affect unemployment for blacks and in general,” Austin says. “We need to talk about how do we build an economy where everyone who wants a job can find a job; how do we create an economy than can produce full employment for blacks?”