Terrance Heath

The Black Unemployment Epidemic

Filed By Terrance Heath | May 16, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: African-American, black, economic policy, finance industry, recession, unemployment

Lost in the media tsunami after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden is news that may prove as economically devastating the terrorism bin Laden masterminded. For a lot of Americans, "returning to the private sector" means practicing saying "You want fries with that?" with a smile. And they're the lucky ones.

For African Americans, in the midst of an underreported epidemic of unemployment, the prognosis is grim.


Even in the middle of what's supposed to be an economic recovery, while overall unemployment went down to the lowest rate in two years, the black unemployment rate actually increased - up from 15.3 percent in February to 15.5 percent in March. In April, according to the the latest numbers, the black unemployment jumped from 15.5 percent in March to 16.1 percent in April, compared to a white unemployment rate of 8.0 percent. The unemployment rate for black men rose to 17.0 percent, compared 7.9 percent for white men.

These numbers, however, only measure the symptoms of an even more troubling condition which threatens the economic lives of African Americans.

A Veritable Epidemic

In her Huffington Post article, "Black Unemployment at Depression Level Highs in Some Cities," Jannell Ross describes "a veritable epidemic of joblessness that has undone decades of economic progress for millions of African Americans."

At the request of The Huffington Post, the Economic Policy Institute analyzed several surveys conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to measure black unemployment both before and after the recession.

The result: a veritable epidemic of joblessness that has undone decades of economic progress for millions of African Americans.

In Birmingham, Ala., the unemployment rate among African Americans was 5.3 percent in 2006, the year before the recession began. Last year it was 14.5 percent, according to the EPI analysis. In Miami, the rate went from 6.7 percent in 2006 to 17.2 percent last year. In the Los Angeles area, the black unemployment rate climbed from 8.6 percent in 2006 to 19.3 percent last year.

Meanwhile, in metropolitan areas where African American unemployment was already a major problem, levels now speak to a running depression. In Detroit, black unemployment last year reached 25.7 percent, more than four times the 6 percent mark seen in 2000 at the end of a technology-driven national economic boom. During the same decade, black unemployment in Las Vegas swelled from 8.2 percent to 20.1 percent, according to the EPI analysis.

Algernon Austin, Director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute reported unemployment rates near 20% for African-Americans in several states, and significantly higher unemployment rates for minority workers than while workers in Michigan, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

In And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts' account of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S., public health physician Selma Dritz sighs to a reporter, "During the war with Napoleon, when Admiral Nelson asked for the numbers of men killed and wounded in a week of action, he said 'Let me have the butcher's bill for the week. ...I feel like I'm writing the butcher's bill of this epidemic." Like any epidemic allowed to run its course, while little effort is made to determine its cause or halt its advance, the epidemic of joblessness Ross chronicles holds terrible consequences for African-American families and communities.

When I interviewed him for this post, EPI's Austin itemized some of the "butcher's bill" for this epidemic.

The thing to keep in mind is that it's bad enough when anyone who wants to work can't find a job, and we now have millions of people who want to work and can't find jobs. We have understand the broad and social and economic harm, but there's also broad psychological harm. We have families that are under tremendous stress because they can't pay their bills, and can't provide for their children. We have children in families that are under tremendous stress. That stress in the family definitely affects children.

Also, high levels of unemployment and foreclosure mean children's lives are disrupted. They may be evicted, live in one place, and then move to another place, or to a homeless shelter. That's a tremendous disruption for children psychologically, and it also disrupts their education when they have to move from school to school. We know that all of this has sever negative impacts on children's long-term academic performance, and consequently their opportunities in the labor market going forward.

So we've seen very high levels of unemployment for 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. And, because we're not doing enough in terms of jobs creation, 2012 and 2013 are going to look very similar for many African-Americans in many communities.

In any epidemic, it's disturbing to watch individuals and entire communities suffer the painful symptoms and ultimate destruction of the disease in question. But focusing on the symptoms and forgetting about the disease ensures that the epidemic will spread and destroy still more lives. That's why epidemiologists look beyond the symptoms, to identify the conditions that allow a disease to reach epidemic proportions.

Epidemics don't just happen. They require the right set of conditions in order to take hold. The current epidemic of African American unemployment didn't just happen either. By the time the market crashed and the economy went into recession, African Americans' financial "immune systems" were already weakened by economic "pre-existing conditions," allowing chronic unemployment to set in. After that, all that was needed for black unemployment to reach epidemic levels was a lack of intervention.

Crossposted at Republic of T

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Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | May 16, 2011 5:32 PM

The statistics cited by Terrance Heath verify that 'last hired, first fired' (1) is being applied with a vengeance in the current depression (2) but these horrific rates have been building for quite some time.

As a result of bipartisan efforts to export trade union jobs, the sole basis for the decades of relative prosperity from 1945 to 1975 hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost because of the deregulation and job export policies of Carter, Reagan and Bush1. With Bill Clintons signature on NAFTA and later on bank deregulation those losses numbered in the millions even before the current depression.

Under heavy attack by union busters from Reagan to Obama, trade union jobs dwindled to a small part of a the work force. The effects of the loss of those jobs in communications, transportation, auto, steel and consumer electronics hit Blacks and Latinos/Latinas especially hard, since they were almost the sole basis of prosperity in those communities.

There is a solution to mass unemployment but it's one that the lap dogs of wall street in the White House and Congress will never agree to. That would be a massive, multi-trillion dollar campaign to green industry, agriculture, transportation and the infrastructure utilizing union hiring halls. The funds to pay for that could be raised by applying a fair (90% - the tax rate on the rich in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations) tax on incomes and inheritances over $250,000.00, a total and complete withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan and South Asia combined with legislation demanding total and immediate repayment of the trillions in bailouts and handouts to banks, insurance and auto companies and to cover the losses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

(1) Black male unemployment is shockingly high, rising from 16.7 percent to 17.3 percent. This compares to a rate increase of 8.8 percent to 8.9 percent for white males. In other words, black male unemployment is 94 percent higher than the rate for white men.

Black women also watched their unemployment rate rise from 12.9 percent to 13.2 percent, while white women saw no increase at all. Black women have an unemployment rate that is roughly 85 percent higher than white females.

The worst group of all are black teenagers. Their unemployment rate already stood at a startling 40.6 percent last month. This month, (written eight months ago in September 2010, it rose to 45.4 percent, which is not only the highest unemployment figure of any group), it is also 90 percent higher than the unemployment rate for white teenagers. http://www.bvonmoney.com/2010/09/06/black-unemployment-rate-increases-700-more-than-white/

(2) Paul Krugman, The Third Depression, The New York Times, June 28, 2010

Back that thang up, Perdue... how is 90% even remotely fair? I realize that taxation is a necessary evil, so it's hard to come up with a percentage that everyone agrees on, but 90% is highway robbery

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | May 18, 2011 3:55 AM


Profits are highway robbery.

Interest rates are highway robbery.

Recovering them to create jobs is the simple application of justice to the situation.

That's a broad swath of tar you just painted.

If I start a company tomorrow that provides a service people want, and I make a 500% return on an initial investment of 250,000, what injustice to society did I commit that the government needs to rectify by taking away 90% of that hard-earned money?

If interest rates are highway robbery, what alternative mechanism do you propose to support the banking system?

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | May 18, 2011 3:55 PM

Tarring? Those concepts are common enough ideas on the left. Democrats, who support capitalism, might think that taxing the rich at the same rate Truman and Eisenhower did, 90%, was more unfair than the mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness caused by the rich and the politicians they own - politicians like the Clintons, the Bushes and Obama but many don't. We consider mass unemployment to be an emergency.

As the events in Madison showed, the opinions of working people are undergoing a sea change on that question. It boils down to the question of whose side you're on, workers or owner-managers.

That change is centering on the role of Obama and the Democrats. Cornel West teaches in the Princeton Center for African American Studies and is a well know reformist socialist who supported Obama in 2008. Like the almost 30 million voters who abandoned the Democrats between 2008 and 2010, West changed his mind. In an article in AlterNet he's quoted as saying Obama "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it."

"...I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.”

As for banks and other economic venues that required handouts from Obama because they weren't viable, they should be nationalized without compensation and run by councils representing workers and consumers. That economic democracy - socialism.

Plus, the high unemployment rate will be used to continue stupid stereotypes about "lazy blacks" who don't want jobs but want to be on government assistance, etc. No one will bother to put two and two together.