Race Drives Jobless Numbers in Worst-Hit Cities

By Michelle Chen Jun 14, 2010

The unemployment rate varies wildly across different regions. But there’s one consistent pattern throughout: to find the people hurting the most, look to the neighborhoods where Black and brown people live. The Economic Policy Institute’s latest breakdown of unemployment looks at the economic crisis through a geographic as well as racial lens. Bottom line: in 2009, your chances of being out of work depended heavily on your metro area, but racial disparities meant that even in the worst-off communities, white people consistently fared better in terms of unemployment, while the Black and Latino jobless rates consistently outpaced the overall number. In metro areas with the highest jobless rate–over 11.3 percent–researchers found Black unemployment beat the citywide number in 14 cities and Latino unemployment topped it in nine cities. Here are some of the extra-low points in the global downturn:


  • In all but two metropolitan areas, the white unemployment rate was lower than the overall rate. For the 50 largest metropolitan areas, the average white unemployment rate is 0.8 times the overall rate.
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  • The Hispanic-white unemployment ratio was highest in Providence, R.I. In Providence the Hispanic unemployment rate was double the white rate, and the gap was 11.3 percentage points.
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  • The black-white unemployment ratio was highest in Minneapolis and Memphis. In these metropolitan areas, the black unemployment rate was three times the white rate.
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  • In many instances, disparities are visible in unemployment rates even when we compare racial subgroups with the same level of education.

Education is often seen as a great equalizer, but in one case study, Minneapolis, race trumped academic credentials in the labor market:

African Americans with a high school diploma or GED were three times as likely to be unemployed as whites with the same level of education. Even if blacks had the exact same educational profile as whites in Minneapolis, they would still have a much higher unemployment rate.

Chronic joblessness means chronic hopelessness for youth of color: it’s no wonder Minneapolis suffers deep racial disparities in graduation rates. But in Sacramento, the value of an education translates differently in this recession:

The 2008 ACS data for Sacramento show a 1.0 to 1 ratio of Hispanic to white unemployment rates for workers with a high school diploma or GED. Thus, Hispanic high school graduates in Sacramento are no more likely to be unemployed than white high school graduates.

Why does education serve as an economic leveler in one city but not another? In communities of color, educational attainment might be both a force for challenging structural racism, while the lack of it reflects the stubbornness of racial barriers. Another dimension to the unemployment crisis in communities of color is time. According to a report by the joint Economic Committee:

Although African American workers make up only 11.5 percent of the labor force, they account for more than 20 percent of the long-term unemployed, and make up 22 percent of workers who have been unemployed for over a year. The median duration of unemployment for African American workers has risen from less than 3 months before the recession began to almost six months.

That doesn’t take into account the underemployed, or the many discouraged workers who have given up looking for a employment. Progressive analysts say all these numbers lend urgency to the jobs legislation wending through Congress. The Local Jobs for America Act would target regional and sector-based unemployment by supporting public-sector jobs like teachers and firefighters–which keep social services running while buffering the workforce against turbulence in the private sector. Though the bill wouldn’t explicitly reference race, it could start closing some of the most blatant gaps in cities like Minneapolis, where Black unemployment was about triple the white rate last year. But even that drop in the bucket remains suspended in a frozen Congress: maybe since people of color have been suffering from the recession a lot longer than others, lawmakers figure it wouldn’t hurt to make them wait a little longer for help. Image: Building trades unemployment rally (AFLCIO via flickr)