“It’s tough especially for young Black men” said Washington. “I need a job with benefits, but nothing is out there. I’ve had a few interviews, but they don’t result in nothing.”
Washington has no skills and he’s a high school dropout.
But James Price is frustrated, too. He’s got a college degree and the skills to go along with it. He’s mostly worked in the media and ran his own business for a decade before his cash flow ran dry.
“There is a media crisis,” he said. “Newspapers aren’t hiring and televisions stations are only hiring if you have a good inside contact and you are young and white. Mature, skilled Black people like me need not apply. I’m at the point where I’ll take almost any job that pays me what I’m worth and provides health insurance.”
These are the easy tales of woe found in almost any African-American community in Philadelphia. But these anecdotes and the government’s recently released national unemployment statistics don’t tell the true story about the depth of joblessness in the Black community.
The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that the national African-American unemployment rate has hit 11 percent — reaching double digits for the first time in three years.
The bureau has yet to release Philadelphia’s unemployment rate by race or gender. The city’s total jobless rate stands at 7.2 percent, higher than the nation’s 5.7 percent unemployment rate.
Experts say the current increase in African-American unemployment is driven by a rise in Black women’s unemployment, which jumped 1.7 percentage points, from 8.3 percent in July to 10 percent in August. Last August, the Black female unemployment rate was 7.5 percent.
This year, Black men’s unemployment rate declined slightly from July to August, going from 11.3 percent to 11.2 percent, but it is still significantly higher than it was just a year ago when it was a much lower at 7.9 percent.
Young Black adults and recent college graduates (25 to 29-year-olds) are finding it difficult to find work. Their unemployment has risen from 5.1 percent in August 2007 to 6.9 percent last month. As the economic downturn proceeds, it will continue to have a disproportionate effect on African Americans.
But the true extent of the unemployment problem rarely receives the attention that it deserves. Perhaps for reasons of race or systemic economic justice, Democratic and Republican presidents have made the real unemployment statistics almost impossible to find in the media.
People are rightfully suspicious of what the media now tries to pass of as “official” jobless statistic.
The unemployed heads African Americans see and know can be counted on street corners, in front of television sets, sitting in living rooms, bored and or angry and frustrated and locked down in some jail cell.
Finding the true jobless figures is like playing a shell game with a street corner hustler. The object to be found is taken off the table so no matter which shell the unsuspecting player picks, the object will never be found.
What makes the object — or the true jobless rate — so important is that it affects the social fabric of the African-American community.
A high unemployment rate can determine the quality of family life and education, crime, housing, how long people lives, how sick they are and many other vital factors.
Simply put: numbers are political. They tell stories that shape public policy and those policies can sometimes determine who lives and who dies; who will be homeless and who will not; who has heat in the winter and who will go hungry. Numbers are not to be trifled with.
And numbers come with consequences. These social ills require special programs ranging from Food Stamps, AID to Dependent Children, unemployment compensation, housing support, energy assistance and Medicaid.
In the 1950s, the federal, state and local governments paid $23.5 billion for these programs. By 1990, the cost for these programs hit $1 trillion — no small sum by any measure.
Some economists argue that the national Black jobless rate or employment-population ratio (the proportion of the working age population with a job) for African Americans is 42 percent of all those of working age.
The translation: Almost half of all African Americans who can work aren’t working.
There are numerous arguments about why that is the case. Among the most popular is that Black men, for example, refuse to work for what they call “chump change.” Any job, the popular saying goes, is better than no job.
In a recently released paper by Algernon Austin, director of the Washington based Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, he argues that studies have found that Black men are willing to work for lower wages than any other major racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.
He concluded that African-American men were willing to work for $5.85 an hour if there were no other jobs available and white men were willing to work for $8.93 under the same circumstances.
Austin also wrote: “The surprising fact about the employment rate gaps among white and Black men is that the gap is biggest among high school dropouts. It is the jobs that are defined as low-skill jobs (i.e., those that do not require a high school diploma) that Black men have the most difficulty obtaining.
“In 2007, for men in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 years old, the white-Black employment gap for high school dropouts was 15.4 percentage points. For male college graduates, whites had a four-percentage point employment advantage over Blacks. For men with advanced degrees, the white male employment advantage was 1.8 percentage points.”
The social consequences of such a high unemployment rate are astounding. Policymakers and social science contend that they have resulted in overcrowded jails, failing schools, deteriorating housing and a broken health care system.
“Based on these real numbers, it is clear that we need some kind of domestic Marshal Plan,” said Austin. He was referring to a World War II era development program that helped Europe and Japan recover from the war.
Rather than a Marshal Plan, there is a growing movement in the African-American community calling for reparations and economic justice for all Americans.
There are numerous reasons why the public never gets a chance to see these numbers.
Kevin Phillips, a speechwriter in the Nixon administration and an economist, says since 1960 both Democratic and Republican presidents have rigged the numbers and the media has played along.
He says even the Clinton administration, which was widely praised for its policies toward African Americans, helped push the real statistical realities of Blacks under the carpet.
According to him, the Clinton administration redefined the workforce as people seeking work for less than a year, so that those who were out of the job market for more than a year were not counted in the unemployment statistic.
The Clinton administration also thinned the household economic sampling from 60,000 to 50,000 by dropping mostly inner city households, resulting in a count that reduced Black unemployment and poverty levels.
These numbers are only expected to get worse as the nation’s economy settles into a deepening slump with worsening economic pain for families. The past seven months of job losses follows the slowest job growth since the Great Depression.
“The worst is yet to come in the U.S.,” Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard University professor of economics, said in an interview.
As the old saying goes, when white America catches a cold, Black American catches pneumonia.