fresh voices from the front lines of change







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 increasedup 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.

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