America’s 10% unemployment rate has overshadowed the plight of the chronically jobless and underemployed, but the jobs initiatives adopted or proposed so far won't do much any time soon to help those who are habitually at the end of the job queue, writes Margaret Simms in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel commentary. A strategy to ensure that jobs reach the communities in which African-Americans live should include programs that jump-start job expansion where employment losses are heaviest.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 3, 2010
by Margaret Simms, Institute Fellow
America's 10% unemployment rate has overshadowed the plight of the chronically jobless and underemployed. Generating jobs is essential to sustaining the economic expansion that seems to be getting under way, but the initiatives adopted or proposed so far won't do much any time soon to help those who are habitually at the end of the job queue.
The tension between a "just-generate-jobs" strategy and targeted approaches shows up in the escalating battle between the Congressional Black Caucus and the White House. The caucus thinks its constituents -- residents of 20 states plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands -- won't benefit from the ideas and programs on the table. Caucus members are mindful that many of the communities they represent -- states that include more than 80% of the African-American population -- missed out on the economic booms of the past decade and a half.
In Milwaukee and seven other Midwestern metropolitan areas represented by the caucus, job growth was only one-tenth that of the nation as a whole over the past 15 years. Half of the communities had fewer jobs in 2009 than in 1995, though the entire nation had 10% more. Even in the fast-growing South and West, about half the communities in the caucus fold fared worse than their counterparts, generating only 40% to 50% as many jobs as their Southern and Western sister metros during the high-growth 1995-2002 period.
African-Americans in this bloc of states and the District of Columbia will also wait longer for any jobs that do come to their communities. For the past half-century, there have been approximately two blacks unemployed for every white without a job. In November 2009, the African-American unemployment rate stood at 16%, compared with 9% for whites and 12% for Latinos.
The unemployment rate for African-Americans would have been even higher if many had not stopped looking for work because so few jobs were available. According to a new Bureau of Labor Statistics report, African-American workers nationally are more than twice as likely as whites to be in this category. When the economy was expanding in the 1980s, whites got jobs again about a year before black workers did. During the long expansionary period of the 1990s, the unemployment rate for adult African-American males was more than twice that of white adult males until the end of the decade.
So what's to keep the longstanding re-employment pattern from leaving African-Americans further behind as the recovery takes hold?
A strategy to ensure that jobs reach the communities in which African-Americans live should include programs that jump-start job expansion where employment losses are heaviest.
For example, Michigan had a 1% employment increase during October, but those 38,000 new jobs barely dented unemployment rolls, which had shot up to more than 700,000 people (not counting the many more who have given up looking for jobs). Perhaps the strategies being developed through the Recovery for Auto Communities program can be applied, modified or improved for use in the many communities nationwide now in distress.
Even strategies to create jobs in African-American communities alone won't improve job stability and upward mobility for African-Americans. Targeted job-training programs will be needed. Community organizations can be strong allies in developing programs and outreach initiatives that engage those trying to improve their employment prospects.
So far, much attention has been directed toward the community college system as an avenue for education and training, but alternatives are needed. Federal funds for work force training have been falling for the past two decades, at a time when jobs paying a family-sustaining wage increasingly require high-level skills.
Without these special initiatives, expect prolonged and deeper hardship. Black families have fewer employed workers to begin with and fewer assets to fall back on in hard times.
With some targeted help, these families could recover along with the rest of us.
Margaret Simms directs the Low-Income Working Families project at the Urban Institute, where she is also an Institute fellow.