Black Unemployment Crisis: “Social Catastrophe” in the Making

By Michelle Chen Nov 26, 2009

The latest employment figures sadly unsurprising: with about 35 percent of black men aged 16 to 24 unemployed, the epidemic of joblessness in Black America encapsulates a nationwide crisis. Although high unemployment and deep racial disparities are nothing new, the depth and length of the recession has prompted progressive economists and community groups to warnof an impending "social catastrophe."

The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, has outlined the racial and ethnic dimensions of the crisis, noting that the mainstream statistics reflect only part of the problem:

There are another 9 million people working part time because they cannot find full-time work. Millions of others have given up looking for a job, and so aren’t counted in the official unemployment figures. Altogether, 17.5% of the labor force is underemployed—more than 27 million Americans, including one in four minority workers. Last, given individuals moving in and out of jobs, we can expect a third of the work force, and 40% of workers of color, to be unemployed or underemployed at some point over the next year.

NAACP President Ben Jealous said in a recent joint statement by civil rights groups, “Black people in the U.S. are the canaries in the coal mine… What we get tends to hit everybody later.”

A deep recession would see median U.S. family income decline by 4% and Black income decrease by 6%. Thirty-three percent of Blacks and 41% of Latinos would be in danger of falling out of the middle class into poverty compared to 25% nationally.

Of course, there are reasons to focus on the black unemployment crisis other than what it might portend for white unemployment.The figures spell out how systemic inequality is woven into the fiber of the economy. United for a Fair Economy’s research on the racial wealth divide depicts a chronically skewed distribution of opportunity: poverty rates among blacks and Latinos is more than double that for whites, and even among the so-called middle class, economic stability is eroding faster for people of color:

EPI projects that in the coming months, unemployment rates for Blacks and Latinos will lurch well into the teens, but some states will be especially devastated. One in four Black workers in Michigan will be unemployed by mid-2010.

Slicing the data by age also shows troubling patterns–again, stratified along racial lines: As of July, the federal government reports, "unemployment rates for young men (19.7 percent), women (17.3 percent), whites (16.4 percent), blacks (31.2 percent), Asians (16.3 percent), and Hispanics (21.7 percent) increased from a year earlier."

Youth joblessness foreshadow future economic quagmires. As the Washington Post points out, studies have shown that young people who start off adulthood at the margins of the workforce tend to stay there. For youth of color, the job hunt is threaded with both structural discrimination and more subtle racial bias in employers’ hiring decisions.

Another problem is that the jobs people are fighting for just aren’t very good. The EPI has sketched out a basic definition of "good jobs"–those with livable wages and secure benefits–that is fast becoming extinct. The overall proportion of the workforce blessed with a good job stands at less than 30 percent; the good jobs rate among Black workers is just 20 percent, and among Latinos, an abysmal 14 percent. And it’s gotten worse over the past generation, the group says: "for Hispanics and blacks, both males and females are less likely now to have good jobs than in 1979."

EPI says it’s possible to lift the good jobs rate to 75 percent of all jobs in the economy, through measures like targeted job-creation policies for businesses, universal health care, a stronger public education system in communities of color, and a reasonable minimum wage. The other ingredient to growing good jobs and narrowing racial disparities lies in shifting the balance of power in the workplace: policies like the Employee Free Choice Act would help workers unionize and then negotiate decent wages and benefits.

In an economy where people are happy just to have any job, pushing for an expansion of high-quality jobs seems like a tall order. But with so many Americans starting from nothing, it can’t hurt to hold out for something better. Cross-posted at