More on Unemployment: Discouraging News

By Michelle Chen Aug 07, 2009

As Jonathan Yee notes in his analysis of the latest employment figures, the kind-of-less bad jobless numbers are shadowed by record rates of long-term unemployment. Those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more has reached an all-time high, making up over one third of the unemployed. The National Employment Law Project warns that prospects are rapidly dimming for the half million workers who are within weeks of exhausting their federally-funded unemployment benefits, despite a temporary extension under the Recovery Act. If past is prologue, chronic joblessness hits communities of color especially hard. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute and NELP based on 2001-2004 data, Blacks made up 26 percent of the long-term unemployed, and Latinos made up over 13 percent. Long-term unemployment had grown for both groups since the early 1990s but had declined for whites. (And this is was during the relatively "good" times of the jobless recovery.) Today, as the manufacturing sector deteriorates, it’s likely that Black auto industry workers—once a bulwark of blue-collar stability—will continue to bear some of the worst impacts of the recession. The official 9.4 percent rate also ignores so-called “marginally attached” workers, who include unemployed people who haven’t actively sought work in the past month, and “discouraged workers,” who have for deliberately turned away from the job market. When you factor in marginally attached workers and those who have resorted to part-time jobs to get by, real unemployment hovers at dismal 16 percent, or about 15 million people. Not surprisingly, marginalized communities are prone to further alienation in an anemic job market. According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, “Relative to their share of the labor force, young people, blacks, and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics and men were over­represented among discouraged workers in the first quarter of 2009.” In the first quarter, Blacks made up roughly 22 percent of marginally attached workers, and an even higher percentage of discouraged workers—about double their representation in the overall labor force. In a recent op-ed, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad of the Institute for Policy Studies wrapped some meat around those figures:

the most salient and lasting effect of the current recession may turn out to be the decimation of the black middle class. According to a study by Demos and the Institute for Assets and Social Policy, 33% of the black middle class was already in danger of falling out of the middle class at the start of the recession. Gates and Obama, along with Oprah and Cosby, will no doubt remain in place, but millions of the black equivalents of Officer Crowley — from factory workers to bank tellers and white collar managers — are sliding down toward destitution. For African Americans — and to a large extent, Latinos — the recession is over. It occurred between 2000 and 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4% and incomes declined by 2.9%. During the seven-year long black recession, one-third of black children lived in poverty, and black unemployment — even among college graduates — consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment. That was the black recession. What’s happening now is a depression.

Imagine (or maybe you don’t have to imagine) having spent the last six months searching for a job, on top of years of being unable to land steady work, getting crushed by credit card debt and a shaky mortgage, still waiting for the Recovery Act to kick in, noticing that all your neighbors are doing no better than you are, and wondering how much deeper your community is buried compared to others. The word "discouraged” might not be quite strong enough to describe how these folks are feeling. Image: Wayne E. Smith / The Detroit News