Ongoing joblessness: A national catastrophe for African American and Latino workers

As my colleague Heidi Shierholz has noted, the recent “hold steady” jobs report represents an ongoing disaster for all workers. But historically, and since the Great Recession, unemployment has inflicted significantly more pain on black and Hispanic workers. EPI recently released five reports on unemployment through the recession that reveal the depth of suffering among black and Hispanic workers in states with large minority populations, focusing particularly on black and Hispanic unemployment in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas. Coupled with historic barriers to employment for people of color, the economic collapse of the recession and painfully slow recovery have taken a much greater toll on African Americans and Hispanics than whites.

The figure below shows the significant disparities in black-white and Hispanic-white unemployment in the U.S. over the last 34 years. African American unemployment rates have almost always been at least twice—and sometimes more than two and a half times—that of whites since 1979. Even at the depths of the Great Recession, when white unemployment was much higher, the black unemployment rate was 1.88 times that of whites. At this disparity’s peak in 1989, the black unemployment rate was 2.71 times the white unemployment rate. Likewise, Hispanic unemployment rates have been at least one and a half times (and, throughout the 90s, more than twice) that of whites since 1979. The Hispanic-white unemployment gap peaked in 1998 when the Hispanic unemployment rate was 2.12 times that of whites. At the end of 2012, the black unemployment rate was more than twice (2.11) that of whites, and the Hispanic unemployment rate stood at more than one and a half times (1.56) that of whites.

The “shamefully high” unemployment rate for African Americans and Hispanics in several states shows just how dire the situation is for people of color. The African American unemployment rate (in the fourth quarter of 2012) in 12 states exceeded the national rate (14.0 percent) for black workers, with Michigan’s black unemployment rate the highest in the U.S. at 18.7 percent. Bottoming out at 9.5 percent, the lowest black unemployment rate (in Louisiana) represents an economic crisis for African Americans nationwide.

The jobs crisis for Hispanics is equally bad. The Hispanic unemployment rate at the end of 2012 was greater than the national Hispanic unemployment rate (9.8 percent) for Hispanic workers in eleven states, with Rhode Island’s the highest at 18.2 percent.

The economic collapse and wrongheaded policy choices in response created this unemployment disaster and a sluggish recovery for workers of all races. Swift, broad policy action can also end it. Strong federal public investments and increased safety net spending would help to reverse the public-sector austerity measures taken by state and local governments in recent years (following the fade of the Recovery Act’s economic boost). Investments in large public infrastructure projects would address the jobs crisis and the country’s infrastructure needs. A substantial share of infrastructure-project jobs would go to African American and Latino workers, and would begin to reduce the black-white and Hispanic-white unemployment gaps.

Steven Pitts of UC-Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education also provides some policy prescriptions for high African American unemployment. In addition to recommendations for full-employment policies described above, he suggests several other measures which would improve the conditions of all American workers: raising basic wage standards (the federal minimum wage and the minimum wage for tipped workers), ending wage theft, and ensuring the right of workers (especially low-wage workers) to organize.

Pitts other micro-level policy recommendations specific to black workers would also benefit Hispanic workers: Restructuring certain industries “to increase their employment of particular demographic groups that traditionally face high unemployment”; implementing community-based job-training programs that can link program graduates to specific employment opportunities in high-paying industries with internal career ladders; “creating and fostering community job centers that act as hiring halls/dispatch centers for publicly-financed economic development projects” and establishing “black worker centers to organize black workers on jobsites and facilitate collective action when racial discrimination is present or labor laws are violated”. These policies could go a long way toward reversing long-standing racial employment disparities.

Persistent, high unemployment among African American and Hispanic workers is not a new phenomenon, nor is it an economic inevitability. Harsh policy choices with devastating consequences caused our national jobs crisis—humane policy decisions can reverse its harmful effects.

*Methodology note for figures: Races and ethnicities are presented in mutually exclusive categories, i.e., white refers to non-Hispanic whites, black refers to non-Hispanic blacks, and Hispanic refers to Hispanics of any race. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes national annual white, black, and Hispanic unemployment rates; however, its estimates are not based upon mutually exclusive categories and thus will differ slightly from the figures published in this paper.