What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Jobs
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Like the country it governs, Washington is a city of extremes. In a car, you can zip in bare moments from northwest District of Columbia, its streets lined with million-dollar homes and palatial embassies, its inhabitants sporting one of the nation’s lowest jobless rates, to Anacostia, a mostly forgotten neighborhood in southeastern DC with one of the highest unemployment rates anywhere in America. Or, if you happen to be jobless, upset about it and living in that neighborhood, on a crisp morning in March you could have joined an angry band of protesters marching on the nearby 11th Street Bridge.
They weren’t looking for trouble. They were looking for work.
Those protesters, most of them black, chanted and hoisted signs that read “DC JOBS FOR DC RESIDENTS” and “JOBS OR ELSE.” The target of their outrage: contractors hired to replace the very bridge under their feet, a $300 million project that will be one of the largest in District history. The problem: few DC citizens, which means few African-Americans, had so far been hired. “It’s deplorable,” insisted civil rights attorney Donald Temple, “that…you can find men from West Virginia to work in DC. You can find men from Maryland to work in DC. And you can find men from Virginia to work in DC. But you can’t find men and women in DC to work in DC.”
The 11th Street Bridge arches over the slow-flowing Anacostia River, connecting the poverty-stricken, largely black Anacostia neighborhood with the rest of the District. By foot the distance is small; in opportunity and wealth, it couldn’t be larger. At one end of the bridge the economy is booming even amid a halting recovery and jobs crisis. At the other end, hard times, always present, are worse than ever.
Live in Washington long enough and you’ll hear someone mention “east of the river.” That’s DC’s version of “the other side of the tracks,” the place friends warn against visiting late at night or on your own. It’s home to District Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods with a long, rich history. Once known as Uniontown, Anacostia was one of the District’s first suburbs; Frederick Douglass, nicknamed the “Sage of Anacostia,” once lived there, as did the poet Ezra Pound and singer Marvin Gaye. Today the area’s unemployment rate is officially nearly 20 percent. District-wide, it’s 9.8 percent, a figure that drops as low as 3.6 percent in the whiter, more affluent northwestern suburbs.
DC’s divide is America’s writ large. Nationwide, the unemployment rate for black workers at 16.2 percent is almost double the 9.1 percent rate for the rest of the population. And it’s twice the 8 percent white jobless rate.
The size of those numbers can, in part, be chalked up to the current jobs crisis in which black workers are being decimated. According to Duke University public policy expert William Darity, that means blacks are “the last to be hired in a good economy, and when there’s a downturn, they’re the first to be released.”
That may account for the soaring numbers of unemployed African-Americans, but not the yawning chasm between the black and white employment rates, which is no artifact of the present moment. It’s a problem that spans generations, goes remarkably unnoticed, and condemns millions of black Americans to a life of scraping by. That unerring, unchanging gap between white and black employment figures goes back at least sixty years. It should be a scandal, but whether on Capitol Hill or in the media it gets remarkably little attention. Ever.
The Sixty-Year Scandal
The unemployment lines run through history like a pair of train tracks. Since the 1940s, the jobless rate for blacks in America has held remarkably, if grimly, steady at twice the rate for whites. The question of why has vexed and divided economists, historians and sociologists for nearly as long.
For years the sharpest minds in academia pointed to upheaval in the American economy as the culprit. In his 1996 book When Work Disappears, the sociologist William Julius Wilson depicted the forces of globalization, a slumping manufacturing sector and suburban flight at work in Chicago as the drivers of growing joblessness and poverty in America’s inner cities and among its black residents.
He pictured the process this way: as corporations outsourced jobs to China and India, American manufacturing began its slow fade, shedding jobs often held by black workers. What jobs remained were moved to sprawling offices and factories in outlying suburbs reachable only by freeway. Those jobs proved inaccessible to the mass of black workers who remained in the inner cities and relied on public transportation to get to work.
Time and research have, however, eaten away at the significance of Wilson’s work. The hollowing-out of America’s cities and the decline of domestic manufacturing no doubt played a part in black unemployment, but then chronic black joblessness existed long before the upheaval Wilson described. Even when employment in the manufacturing sector was at its height, black workers were still twice as likely to be out of work as their white counterparts.
Another commonly cited culprit for the tenaciousness of African-American unemployment has been education. Whites, so the argument goes, are generally better educated than blacks, and so more likely to land a job at a time when a college degree is ever more significant when it comes to jobs and higher earnings. In 2009, President Obama told reporters that education was the key to narrowing racial gaps in the United States. “If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of economic inequality in this society is diminished,” he said.
Educational levels have, in fact, steadily climbed over the past sixty years for African-Americans. In 1940, less than 1 percent of black men and less 2 percent of black women earned college degrees; jump to 2000, and the figures are 10 percent for black men and 15 percent for black women. Moreover, increased education has helped to narrow wage inequality between employed whites and blacks. What it hasn’t done is close the unemployment gap.
Algernon Austin, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, crunched data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that blacks with the same level of education as whites have consistently lower employment levels. It doesn’t matter whether you compare high-school dropouts or workers with graduate degrees, whites are still more likely to have a job than blacks. Degrees be damned.
Academics have thrown plenty of other explanations at the problem: declining wages, the embrace of crime as a way of life, increased competition with immigrants. None of them have stuck. How could they? In recent decades, the wage gap has narrowed, crime rates have plummeted, and there’s scant evidence to suggest immigrants are stealing jobs that would otherwise be filled by African-Americans.
Indeed, many top researchers in this field, including several I interviewed, are left scratching their heads when trying to explain why that staggering jobless gap between blacks and white won’t budge. “I don’t know if there’s anybody out there who can tell you why that ratio stays at two to one,” Darity says. “It’s a statistical regularity that we don’t have an explanation for.”
Behind Bars, the Invisible Unemployed
So what keeps blacks from cutting into those employment figures? Among the theories, one that deserves special attention points to the high incarceration rate among blacks—and especially black men.
In 2009, 7.2 million Americans—or 3.1 percent of all adults—were under the jurisdiction of the US corrections system, including 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in a state or federal prison. Of that population, nearly 40 percent percent were black, even though blacks make up only 13 percent percent of the American population. Blacks were six times as likely to be in prison as whites, and three times as likely as Hispanics. For some perspective, consider what author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander wrote last year: “There are more African-Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
Incarceration amounts to a double whammy when it comes to African-American unemployment. Rarely mentioned in the usual drumbeat of media reports on jobs is the fact that the Labor Department doesn’t include prison populations in its official unemployment statistics. This automatically shrinks the pool of blacks capable of working and in the process lowers the black jobless rate.
In the mid-1990s, academics Bruce Western and Becky Pettit discovered that the American prison population lowered the jobless rate for black men by five percentage points, and for young black men by eight percentage points. (Of course, this applies to whites, Asians and Hispanics as well, but the figures are particularly striking given the overrepresentation of blacks in the prison population.)