Trading Down The Black Unemployment Epidemic

Terrance Heath

Almost a year ago, I wrote that African Americans and Latinos are the "canaries in our economic coal mine." In early mines, ventilation was poor at best, non-existent at worst. So, miners would take a caged canary into the mine with them. Canaries, being sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide gases, were the miners’ early warning system. Toxic gases would kill the birds before killing the miners. If the canary stopped singing and keeled over, it was time to get out of the mine.

A year ago, the black and brown "canaries in our too-long-deregulated economic mineshaft" were gasping for air. A year later, the canaries are still gasping for air, and too few seem to notice, or ask why.

Certainly lawmakers like Oklahoma Republican state representative Sally Kern don’t ask why, because the real answers are a far cry from Kern’s simple and self-serving answer.

Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, said minorities earn less than white people because they don’t work as hard and have less initiative.

“We have a high percentage of blacks in prison, and that’s tragic, but are they in prison just because they are black or because they don’t want to study as hard in school? I’ve taught school, and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”

Kern said women earn less than men because “they tend to spend more time at home with their families.”

The title of Janell Ross’s Huffington Post article, "Black Unemployment at Depression Level Highs in Some Cities," pretty much says it all. Algernon Austin, Director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute agrees. "I think the title of article gets it quite right," he said to me during a phone interview yesterday. "There are places where we’re seeing unemployment rates of 20 percent or higher. When you see a community with that level of unemployment for as long as six months to a year, or two years in some places, I think it’s fair to call it depressed. And unfortunately there’s are a number of African-American communities where it’s the case."

In her article, Ross weaves the story of Wanda Nolan — a bank teller and homeowner with an MBA, who lost her job in September 2008 — into the bigger story of what is happening to the lives, hopes, and dreams of a generation of African-Americans in this economic crisis and recovery-in-name only.

More than two years later, Nolan is still looking for a job and feeling increasingly anxious about a future that once felt assured. Her life has devolved from a model of middle class African American upward mobility into an example of a disturbing trend:

She is among the 15.5 percent of African Americans out of work and still looking for a job.

For economists, that number may sound awful, but it’s not surprising. The nation’s overall unemployment rate sits at 8.8 percent and the rate among white Americans is at 7.9 percent. For a variety of reasons — ranging from levels of education and continuing discrimination to the relatively young age of black workers — black unemployment tends to run twice the rate for whites. Yet since the Great Recession, joblessness has remained so critically elevated among African Americans that it is challenging longstanding ideas about what it takes to find work in the modern-day economy.

Millions of people like Nolan, who have precisely followed the oft-dictated recipe for economic success — work hard, get an education, seek advancement — are slipping backward. Even as they apply for jobs and accept the prospect of a future with less job security and lower pay, they remain stalled in unemployment.

Trading down has become a painful truth for much of working America, but this truth becomes particularly stark when seen through the prism of race. Only 12 percent of all Americans are black, but working-age black Americans comprise nearly 21 percent of the nation’s unemployed, according to federal data. The growing contrast between prospects for white and black job-seekers challenges a cherished American notion: the availability of opportunity and upward mobility for all.

Sue Kern probably hasn’t heard Wanda Nolan’s story, or others like it.

It is a familiar story; so many "trading down" who have only recently "traded up" to what they thought, and what they were taught, was the "American Dream." it was so familiar, in fact, that I was sure I’d read it before. I had. Nolan’s story is much like that of Chrissandra Walker, one of the 2 million unemployed Americans the GOP told to "Drop dead" in November, when the House failed to vote on a measure to continue emergency unemployment benefits. Like Nolan and millions of other, Walker followed the "oft-dictated" recipe for economic success. Walker, 50, worked since she was 12 year old, earned a college degree in health care administration, and eventually earned $100,000 annually as a nursing home executive. After losing her job, Walker ended up supporting herself and her daughter on $11,000, plus what she earned selling home-cooked meals out of her apartment at $10 a pop.

And the same conservatives who fought to extend tax cuts for the wealthy resisted extending unemployment benefits for Walker and other like her.

I heard echoes of Charles Jenkins’s story in Nolan’s, too. Jenkins, 55, was working as a driver for a transportation company when he was hospitalized due to a serious illness in 2009. With no sick leave to fall back on, Jenkins was terminated. Unemployed for nearly a year, Jenkins said he applied for "10 to 12 jobs a week," without success. He began working as a community organizer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, through the Targeted Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Contingency Fund subsidized employment program.

"There are no jobs, especially at a living wage," Jenkins said at a Chicago rally in March of last year. "I should be as important to Congress as a big Wall Street bank." He wasn’t. Conservatives killed 240,00 jobs, including Jenkins’s job, when GOP senators refused to reauthorize the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund program. Instead, the GOP decided to make Jenkins one of 1.4 million unemployed black men.

Nolan’s story is probably much the same as some of the 500 people who applied for just 120 positions when a new International House of Pancakes restaurant opened up in D.C. in November. IHOP management allowed The Washington Post access to the applications, which "read like a diary of the recession," as people with college degrees, experience workers, retirees, and former government employees vied for a chance at "a life of pancakes and $3.32 an hour plus tips."

While conservatives call extending unemployment benefits "misplaced compassion," reserve their compassion for the top 1% and withhold unemployment benefits in order to encourage people to "reenter the private sector," millions of unemployed Americans have been trying to "reenter the private sector," in some cases desperately applying for any job they can find, only to discover that the private sector neither wants nor needs most of them now. For every one person who does"reenter the private sector," usually for far less money than they were making before, there are four or five more who won’t find work because there’s no work to find.

Nolan’s story could be what the future holds for Rosemary Hicks. She graduated magna cum laude from Tuskegee University in May 2010 with a degree in sales and marketing. The first in her family to earn a degree, Hicks applied for 30 jobs in just five months. Like many graduates, she found herself competing with recently laid-off older workers, with years of experience, who were desperate enough for work to take the entry-level positions Hicks and other graduates seek.

Hicks and other young African Americans who "need to know the American dream is still obtainable," but may find it placed beyond their reach if the unemployment crisis Ross describes in African American communities continues unnoticed, unmentioned and unabated.

Conservatives like Sue Kern don’t know these stories, and apparently don’t care to. Conservatives such as Kern call the unemployed "spoiled", "lazy" "drug users" who "don’t want to work." They’re unemployed "because they want to be" or because they "want a homeless life" and should "get off their backsides" because there are "lots of jobs available", but won’t because unemployment benefits (a "necessary evil") are "too much of an allure."

Meanwhile, congressional conservatives seek to add hundreds of thousands more to the ranks of the unemployed, and offer no plans for job creation, as though the jobs will magically appear.

There’s a high price paid for both the GOP’s rhetorical and political attacks on the unemployed. I’ll cover those, and their visceral depiction in Janell Ross’s article, in my next post.

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