On December 3, President Obama is scheduled to convene a jobs summit at the White House. It is music to my ears that the Administration is going to finally focus on job creation after arguing for over a month that the worst economic recession since the Great Depression (technically, back-to-back severe recessions) had ended and that America is in the midst of an economic recovery.
The problem with the Administration's once rosy assessment is that the nation has been experiencing a jobless economic recovery: profits are up on Wall Street, but, the nation's unemployment rate is also up (above 10 percent) and rising.
Political pundits (on the left and right) and the "Oppose Anything Obama Does" political party on the right jumped all over the Administration's utterly ridiculous claim that things are getting better, even though people continue to lose their jobs or are being forced to cut back hours to improve company profits.
Almost uniformly, they have asked one question: "Where is the jobs recovery for Main Street?"
The problem is that "Main Street America" is across the tracks on the white side of town. America needs a jobs recovery that stretches to the side streets and alleys that many people of color live on.
Since the recession began in 2007, the nation's unemployment rate has jumped from 4.9 percent to 10.2 percent. However, the official unemployment rate masks a devastating depression in black and Latino communities across the country.
According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), unemployment rates were high among blacks and Latinos even before the recent recession began. In 2007, at the start of the recession, the unemployment rate for blacks was 8.6 percent. It now stands at 15 percent. For Latinos, the rate was 5.9 percent in 2007. It is now above 12 percent.
These numbers reflect only part of the problem. There are millions more out there who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work or have simply given up on looking for a job. They are not counted in the official unemployment data. Altogether, probably a quarter of people of color are unemployed, underemployed or have abandoned the job market.
Slicing the data by gender reflects some troubling patterns. According to an article published in the Washington Post, "Joblessness for 16-to-24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions – 34.5 percent in October, more than three times the rate for the general U.S. population." By comparison, young black women have an unemployment rate of 26.5 percent.
Looking at the data by race and age also points to some troubling patterns: according to a July youth employment and unemployment report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "unemployment rates for young men (19.7 percent), women (17.3 percent), whites (16.4 percent), blacks (31.2 percent), Asians (16.3 percent), and Hispanics (21.7 percent) increased from a year earlier."
Given the severity of the situation, blacks and Latinos are unlikely to recover from this economic recession quickly. For example, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, in 2008, blacks accounted for 19.3 percent of the total unemployed, but represented 25.4 percent of the long-term unemployed (out of work for more than 6 months or longer).
What is needed in the "other America" are "good jobs" – ones that pay wages that allow workers to take care of their families and provide them with health and retirement security.
Though good jobs are needed everywhere, America has too few good jobs to go around, and the number of goods jobs that are out there have been shrinking over the last thirty years.
Using a minimal definition of a "good job" – one that pays a wage (60 percent of the median household income for a family of four with an annual income of $30.182, or $14.51 an hour) that can support a family and that provides health care and retirement benefits – according to a recently published briefing paper by the EPI ("Getting Good Jobs to America's People of Color" by Algernon Austin), between 1979 and 2008, the share of good jobs shrank by 6.9 percent (from 34.5 percent to 27.6 percent).
Good jobs are hard to come by, especially on America's side streets and alleys. It should come as no surprise, then, that people of color have a lower rate of good jobs than do whites. In 2008, among white workers, the share of good jobs was 31.5 percent. The good jobs share for blacks was 21.8 percent (a little above two-thirds the white rate). For Latinos that share was 14.4 percent (half the white rate).
Fixing the problem will require a two-pronged approach. According to the EPI briefing paper, increasing the number of good jobs will require:
- the Obama Administration and Congress make increasing the number of good jobs a national priority;
- providing universal health insurance and universal retirement security; and
- making it easier for workers to form and join labor unions
Given the advantages white workers have over workers of color in the labor market, increasing the number of good jobs will not guarantee that the racial gap in good jobs will close. The EPI brief suggests that policymakers also address:
- the harmful effects of racism in the U.S. labor market;
- the poor quality of public education in many central-city communities and the need for apprenticeships and other jobs training programs for people of color;
- the refusal of the U.S. labor market to recognize the validity of non-European college degrees of immigrants; and
- the collateral effects of mass incarceration
Black and Latino joblessness and underemployment foreshadow future problems for our country. In a recent joint statement by civil rights groups, NAACP President Ben Jealous makes this point clear: "Black people in the U.S. are the canaries in the coal mine… What we get tends to hit everybody later."
So, I ask, "Mr. Obama, where is the jobs recovery for the people who live on America's side streets and alleys?"
And, Mr. Obama, not just any job will do; a jobs recovery that only creates minimum wage, low-skilled jobs with little or no benefits is not a recovery at all.