Last Hired, First Fired.

cross-posted at the United States of Jamerica

I’m sure most of you recognize the post title as an unfortunately short and pithy way of describing the frustrating situation African-American workers are usually in during recessions.  The latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that that’s still the case:

Black Male Worker Jobless Rate Jumps To 17.2% in April

The official seasonally adjusted jobless rate for Black female workers over 20 years old also increased from 9.9% to 11.5% between March 2009 and April 2009; and the official “seasonally adjusted” jobless rate for all Black workers increased from 13.3% to 15% during this same period.

[…]

The seasonally adjusted jobless rate for Black youth between 16 and 19 years old increased from 32.5% to 34.7% between March 2009 and April 2009, while the unemployment rate for Hispanic or Latino youth increased from 24.9% to 26.5% during this same period.

Historically, black workers – and especially black male workers – have had a difficult time finding employment.  A 2004 report commissioned by Northeastern University compared the employment rates of black male teens (16-19) and black male young adults (20-24) over the past fifty years.  The results were stunning.  Among black male teens, the employment rate dropped from a high of 52.3 percent in 1954 to a low of 19.9 percent in 2003, with an average rate of approximately 31.4 percent. Among black male young adults, the employment rate is higher, but there is still a significant decline over the past fifty years, from a high point of 82.8 in 1966 to a low point of 56.2 in 2003.  In both categories, as the following graphs will show, there is a huge disparity between between the employment rate for black males and the employment rate for their white counterparts.

Historical trends in the gap between the employment/population ratios of black and white 16-19 year old men in the U.S., 1954-2003:

black male1

Historical trends in the gap between the employment/population ratios of black and white 20-24 year old men in the U.S., 1954-2003:

black male2

Moreover, black teenagers were disproportionately affected by the recession of 2001 and the subsequent jobless recovery of 2002-2003.  And while the employment rate of black men increases steadily with age, it’s still the case that black males remain underemployed when compared to their white and Hispanic counterparts:

black male 3

As the report notes, “what is most depressing about the low average employment rates of Black men, however, is the high fraction of such men, especially those with limited schooling living in the nation’s central cities and its small urban/rural areas, who are idle all year long.”  Although a rising fraction of 25-54 year old males in the United States are idle, that is even more pronounced among black males; the idle rate for black males aged 20-64 was 24.5 percent, a little over twice as high as the idleness rate for white and Hispanic males (11.8 percent and 12.3 percent respectively), and 10 percent higher than that for Asian males (14.6 percent).  It’s worth noting that the “idleness” rate is separate from the joblessness rate.  While the latter measures the percentage of individual who are not working in a given month, the former measures the percentage of individuals who did not work at all in a given year. In other words, almost a quarter of all black males did not work in 2003 (and that has surely increased as a result of the recession).  The picture is even more bleak when you disaggregate the results for age:

black male4

I recommend that you read the whole report; it’s a little old, yes, but contains a wealth of valuable (but extremely depressing) information.  On nearly all measures, from wages to GEDs/high school diplomas to college diplomas, black males are significantly behind their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts.  Interestingly, the trend for black females is nearly the reverse of that for black males; over the past fifty years, the employment rate for black females – as well as the high school graduation and college attendance rate – has increased dramatically: “in the 1999-2000 school year, Black women (of all ages) obtained 188 Associate degrees and 192 Bachelor degrees for every 100 such academic degrees awarded to Black men.”

Of course, the obvious question after reading all of this is “can we do something?”  And the answer is yes, there are a myriad number of short-term and long-term, macro and microeconomic strategies the government can take to address or alleviate the problem.  The first few are obvious: bringing the country out of the recession and putting it on the road to strong, healthy job growth, as well as boosting the number of school-to-career and school-to-work transition programs (making it easier for black male teens to move into the job market).  After that, the solutions are more acute and far more politically difficult: workforce development programs targeted at older black males, federal direct job creation programs to boost short-term employment prospects, and sustained federal and state investment in improving literacy and numeracy proficiency, as well as educational attainment.  And finally, a concerted effort to reduce the number of black men in the criminal justice system, as well as an effort to reduce incidence of out-of-wedlock births, which combined with poor socio-economic opportunities, is a definite growth killer.

Depressingly, even if you pitched these as “universal” programs, they wouldn’t be an easy sell to the American people; not only are Americans notoriously allergic to welfare programs – of any sort – but as we all know, Americans tend to associate “welfare” with “black people,” and as such, any attempt to expand these programs will be met with substantial opposition.  Moreover, the fact that Democratic presidential candidates didn’t mention any of these things – even in the midst of a recession and Democratic wave – shows that it isn’t politically wise.  I wish I could end this post on a happier note, but unfortunately, I can’t.

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Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two. You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.

2 comments to Last Hired, First Fired.

  • dilettante

    Thanks for the info. I did read it, and it is depressing. Nothing substantiative to add, I’m commenting only to encourage continued posting,xposting on subjects of this matter.

    There is a behavioral economics paper Penn Institute for Economic Research(free download) that looks at Labor/Marriage market for
    black,white and Hispanic women “In summary, there is no simple answer to the question of what causes minority-majority differences in behaviors and outcomes. The estimates from our model imply that labor market opportunities, i.e., labor market discrimination and/or skill endowments in place by age 14, and marriage market opportunities, i.e., the earnings potential of prospective husbands, as well as the interaction of these differential constraints with the effects of the welfare system, all provide part of the explanation…a key conclusion is that more work needs to be done on the determinants of investments in children at young ages that generate the age 14 skill “endowments” that appear to be so important for later outcomes.

    That last bit seems like a co-opt to me, ['cause haven't there been gazillion studies on the outcomes of head start and other early education interventions?] but perhaps its hopeful. If the utility in tax dollars (& sense) can be presented to the voting public, in the way that (hopefully) the tide is turning on the prison industrial complex- vis a vis drug sentencing there is a way forward.

  • [...] I’m unlikely to get it, and even if I do, I’m likely to be among those who are in the first fired camp. Furthermore, for a host of reasons, Black women are way more likely to get a corporate job [...]

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