Shades of Gray in the Green Economy and Communities of Color

By Michelle Chen Oct 10, 2009

Much has been said on green jobs lately: a economic and environmental cure-all, an overblown promise, an untested ideal. The departure of Van Jones from the White House may seem like another setback for the grassroots movement pushing for public investment in the green sector. Michigan presents a case study in how green growth might fit into the painful transition from ailing dirty industries. Governor Jennifer Granholm’s push for green jobs programs have met with skepticism from critics who fear the initiative isn’t enough to fix deeper problems stemming from Big Auto’s decline. In Chicago, meanwhile, the workers at Republic Windows & Doors (the site of last year’s famous factory takeover) are trying to move into green-collar jobs with the support of federal programs. But the job opportunities planned by a new investor have proven elusive, raising concerns about whether the green promise can buffer low-income workers from the recession. The actual benefits of green jobs may fall short of a miracle, but they are real, and our ecological and economic survival may well depend on them. But for communities of color, green jobs still hold a lot of potential to restore the economic stability that has long eluded marginal low-income workers. The Economic Policy Institute reports that $100 billion in green jobs investment will yield more than 746,000 green jobs, and about 84,700 of those, or eleven percent, will go to Black workers–a powerful byproduct of a move toward a cleaner economy:

• Broad-based green investments will increase the number of jobs available for black workers. • Most of the jobs will have “good-jobs” wages. • They will disproportionately benefit black males who have especially high unemployment rates.

That might be especially welcome news in Michigan, where Black unemployment has reached epidemic levels. The EPI projects that the Midwest would host about one fifth of the job growth from green industries. Latino workers stand to gain as well, since they make up a large portion of the construction industry workforce that could see a boom in green building projects. On the other hand, the jobs will largely go to men, which could have negative consequences for women and female-headed households—which also has consequences for the Black community:

Weighting jobs so heavily toward men could, among other things, exacerbate the gender pay gap, clearly a negative outcome. Furthermore, given that over half the individuals in poverty are in household lacking adult males, a jobs program like this would not be, by itself, an effective anti-poverty tool unless coupled with other policies so that it provides ample job opportunities to women.

The analysis suggests that while the development of green sectors is critical, it can’t operate in isolation; the communities that could benefit the most need more than just jobs, more than even good-paying, carbon-reducing jobs. They need the secure grounding of an economy that doesn’t distill advocates’ myriad goals for social and environmental change into just one form of investment. Green jobs are good news, but they’re definitely not the end of the story.