A job deferred, is a dream deferred. The Great Recession has set youth unemployment rates skyrocketing to unprecedented altitudes, leaving 4.4 million young people without work just as we begin our careers—a stunning share of them African Americans. There are of course immediate consequences—wrestling with college loans, overstaying our welcome at our parents’ homes, plain frustration. But we’ll also be living with the consequences for many years. In particular, it is likely to mean that the already large black-white wealth gap—a disparity that many researchers say defines economic inequity—will grow as my generation comes of age.
Black youth have the highest jobless rate among all races and ethnicities, and that rate is still rising. In the past year, while other youth jobless rates have flat-lined, blacks and Asians have continued to trend upward. And existing racial disparities have widened across the board since the recession began. As of July 2010, while white youth unemployment rate was 16.2 percent, the jobless rates for black youth was double: A whopping 33.4 percent.
Many things drive that alarming statistic. There’s the fact that African Americans as a whole are feeling the brunt of the recession more severely than other demographics. And then there’s the long list of other inequities that black youth face and that, in turn, make employment more difficult even in a good market: the high drop out rates and the uniquely aggressive policing of black neighborhoods, to name two.
But employment opportunities appear to be sparse even for black youth who have what it should take to get a foot in the door. Among youth with bachelor’s degrees, the 2:1 gap between the black and white unemployment rates remains the same. Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute explains:
For the first half of this year, blacks who are under 25 who have a college degree have an unemployment rate of 15.4 percent; whites in that same group have unemployment of 7.9 percent. We are seeing basically a 2:1 disparity. Recent black college grads … have the highest rate of high student loan debt. So that’s another way blacks, even young black college grads, are being hit from both sides. They are less likely to get a job and more likely to have a debt load. [My emphasis.]
I spent the fall speaking with my jobless peers at job fairs and, as is plain in the video above, frustration with these realities is becoming a definitive part of our generational experience. Austin warns it also will impact generations above and below us, as our dependence lessens our parents’ wealth and our debt sets our children behind. “The debt is negative wealth so they are starting off well behind,” says Austin of the jobless college grads. “It’s another real problem facing blacks, and blacks whom people may assume—because they have a college degree—are doing well.”
That’s likely to make a bad thing worse. When the recession began, black families held a dime of wealth for every dollar held by white families; Latino families had 12 cents of wealth compared to that dollar.
Higher educational attainment is too often conflated with middle class status. Although this may be the case for those who can afford to put their children through college, it often cannot be said of many black college students.
“We are including people in the middle class who probably shouldn’t be,” said William Darity, an economist at Duke University. Darity is among a growing number of economists who argue that what defines people as middle class is their “access to some level of wealth that provides some sort of insulation from being pushed into poverty. Usually the most significant element of wealth for people in this country, except for the super rich, is their home.” And we now know that black and Latino families have been hardest hit by the ongoing foreclosure crisis.
How families fair during economic downturns usually defines their wealth mettle. So regardless of income, if you are a couple paychecks away from poverty, then you should not be considered middle class. In their definitive book “Black Wealth, White Wealth; A New Perspective on Racial Inequality,” sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro poignantly sum up how the black middle class has been mistakenly defined by things like education and income, instead of assets. “Without wealth reserves, especially liquid assets, the black middle class depends on income for its standard of living,” they wrote. “Without the asset pillar, in particular, income and job security shoulder a greater part of the burden.”
One reason why black families have been unable to attain true middle class status is that families of color traditionally spread both their income and their assets thinly—which brings us back to the youth jobless rate. “We seem to take care of not only our immediate family but also have a grandmother or aunt or a larger family,” said Victor Corral of the INSIGHT Center for Community Economic Development.
“So although there may be more people in a household, they may be actually supporting six or seven,” says Corral. “And that seems to be much more common in families of color, specifically black and Latino families.”
When recent graduates come back to roost jobless, they are “putting strain on an already fragile economic situation,” as Corral puts it.
And unlike caring for other relatives, who have to move in due to financial reasons brought on by the recession, “boomerang kids” with degrees add unique and sometimes heftier financial obligations in addition to the cost of basic necessities like food, clothing and housing. The come home with a debt burden.
In the Trends in Higher Education Series 2010, a “Who Borrows Most” brief demonstrated that blacks with bachelor degrees beat out every other demographic for the highest debt levels. From 2007 to 2008, 27 percent of blacks with bachelor degrees borrowed $30,500 or more, compared to 16 percent of whites, 14 percent of Latinos and nine percent of Asians.
The report concluded that “too many students are among the minority who borrow amounts that are likely to cause them difficulties, particularly if their earnings are either below average or unusually uneven over time.”
There is also no question that the recession means depleted lifetime earnings for all, but particularly for those out of work for longer periods of time. And according to an April Economic Policy Institute study, dubbed “The Kids Aren’t Alright”, younger workers are staying unemployed longer: “The mean length of unemployment for young workers has more than doubled, from 11 weeks to 25 weeks.”
All of this data translates, in the immediate, to the frustration and anger you’ll hear in the voices of the young people in the video above. As one young mother says, “I been looking for a job for about a year now. At this point, I’m desperate.” As she speaks she holds her young daughter. The question now is whether that desperation will become a permanent part of both of their lives.