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Psychology of Black unemployment

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 9/14/2011, 5 p.m.

As she watched President Barack Obama lay out his jobs plan for the nation last Thursday and repeatedly challenge Congress to address the issue immediately, Madelyn Broadus was thinking "finally, somebody is for the people."

"It seems like for the past 12 years, (the government) is always for corporations and big fat cats. I really feel like he said it right for how we can begin again, the hard-working American people," explained Broadus, one of the 14 million unemployed people that the president was speaking of during his speech.

A sheet metal worker who specializes in installing heating and air conditioning in commercial and industrial buildings, Broadus has not worked a job since November 2009.

"I went to a five-year apprentice program, and when I was about to come out that's when the construction industry went flat," said Broadus, who has existed on unemployment since her last job.

Broadus is not alone as she struggles through long-term unemployment; nor is her situation unique . . . in the Black community.

In fact, a look at employment numbers back to when the United States Department of Labor (DOL) first began segmenting out statistics by race (1972), yields the data that shows the Black unemployment rate has consistently been at least double the national average. In 1982 and 1983, for example, Black unemployment ranged from 17 to 21 percent, while the national rate for that same period ranged from 8.6 to 10.8 percent.

And these numbers, just as today's 16.7 percent rate for Blacks probably understated the number of jobless, believes sociologist Michael Hodge, Ph.D. He said the numbers do not count those who have just stopped looking.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a report called U6, which is a broader measure of labor underutilization. For example, in June of last year, the DOL unemployment rate was 15.7 percent in July of 2010 while the U6 rate (which includes the officially unemployed, discouraged workers, the marginally attached who have fallen out of the labor force and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time work) was 23.6 percent.

The historically high Black unemployment rates even prompted researchers at UC Berkeley to develop a Black Employment and Unemployment Data Brief that is published each month, shortly after the labor department releases its unemployment figures.

The idea behind the brief said Steven C. Pitts, Ph.D., a labor policy specialist with the Center for Labor Research and Education was to make it easy for people to access all the numbers when it comes to Black unemployment. Pitts said the labor department puts out the basic numbers, but Berkeley's data briefs drill deeper to look at various segments within the Black community.

"The Data Brief has been out 16 months now, and I think what it has done is give people a quick way to get the numbers themselves. It has allowed people to talk with some authority about Black unemployment. It's also been able to expand the conversation around Black unemployment and economic issues."