Where Are the Jobs?

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

On the surface, America's jobs situation looks fine—not spectacular, but on the mend from its worrisome condition of recent years.
The overall unemployment rate for June slid a percentage point to a flat 5 percent, its lowest level in more than three years, according to the monthly federal Department of Labor report. Employers added 146,000 jobs, close to the 150,000-per-month rate many economists believe necessary to keep up with the normal growth rate of the labor force. Thus far this year, the economy has averaged 181,000 new jobs a month, on par with last year's pace.

In fact, some declare that other economic indicators signal cause for continued concern. But, at least for the moment, the prevailing view is that the economy and labor market have arrived at a moderate, steady rate of expansion that is likely to continue this way for some time.
But if that's good news for America as a whole, it is decidedly not good news for Black America. The economy's current moderate rate of expansion doesn't represent progress for African Americans. It represents a turning back of the clock.

The reason is stark: While the national overall unemployment slid to 5 percent, from 5.1 percent in May, and the white unemployment rate fell to 4.3 percent, from 4.4 percent, and the unemployment rate for Latino Americans declined to 5.8 percent, from 6.0 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually increased—to 10.3 percent, from 10.1 percent.

Thus, while unemployment for other groups of Americans improved month to month, it worsened for African Americans.

In fact, this has been the pattern of the black unemployment rate since the recession struck the country in the spring of 2001 and the slow recovery began roughly six months later. For most of these four years, it has been stalled between 10 and 11 percent, most often nearly twice the overall national rate and always twice the unemployment rate of whites.
Yes, this is the continuation of a pernicious tradition, by which African Americans are both the last-hired-first-fired and also the not-hired-at-all.

But America needs to remember that it hasn't always been that way. There was a recent moment when the statistic of the black unemployment rate gave us cause to cheer—and illuminated a fundamental truth about what the unemployment rate among African Americans really means.

I'm referring to the late spring of 2000 when, as the white unemployment rate fell to 4.2 percent, its lowest level in three decades, the black unemployment rate sank to an historic low of 7.0 percent.
It reached that level because poor blacks, and especially poor black males, had rushed to take the low-wage service-sector jobs which—thanks to the powerful dynamic of job-creation which fueled the years of economic prosperity of the 1990s—had, finally, opened up to them.

That was confirmed by a national study of more than 300 metropolitan areas by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank. The report found that because the nation's long period of prosperity had opened up jobs at the bottom of the occupational ladder, black males, age 16 to 24 with a high school education or less, were working in greater numbers and earning bigger paychecks than ever before.
Not surprisingly, the report also found that levels of reported crime had fallen most sharply in those areas of the country where declines in joblessness had been greatest.

At the time both Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne and government scholar Jennifer Hochschild separately noted the importance of the news.
Dionne wrote that "those who argued for years that the plight of the poor owed more to what was wrong with the economy than to what was wrong with the poor have been proved right," while Hochschild remarked that "Poor blacks never lost faith in work, education and individual effort. What's different now is that they can do something about it."

In order for the black poor to be able to do something about their unemployment now, the economy itself must stimulate an expansive rate of job growth—which, by the way, will substantially benefit all Americans, too—so that the black poor will gain the opportunity to work.

Thus, the current moderate rate of job growth, one that just keeps pace with the natural growth of the labor force, is not good news for Black America. It means the continuation of an unacceptably high unemployment rate.

As the black poor demonstrated in remarkable fashion just five years ago, they don't need condescending lectures about the value of work. They just need the opportunity to work—even at the lowest wage levels.

So, while some choose to try to resurrect the discredited culture-of-poverty thesis, the real, urgent question is: where are the jobs?

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