Blacks Hit Hard by Economy’s Punch

V. Dion Haynes, Washington Post, November 24, 2009

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Joblessness for 16-to-24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions–34.5 percent in October, more than three times the rate for the general U.S. population. And last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment in the District, home to many young black men, rose to 11.9 percent from 11.4 percent, even as it stayed relatively stable in Virginia and Maryland.

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Construction, manufacturing and retail experienced the most severe job losses in this down economy, losses that are disproportionately affecting men and young people who populated those sectors. That is especially playing out in the District, where unemployment has risen despite the abundance of jobs in the federal government.

Last hired, first fired

Traditionally the last hired and first fired, workers in Spriggs’s age group have taken the brunt of the difficult economy, with cost-conscious employers wiping out the very apprenticeship, internship and on-the-job-training programs that for generations gave young people a leg up in the work world or a second chance when they made mistakes. Moreover, this generation is being elbowed out of entry-level positions by older, more experienced job seekers on the unemployment rolls who willingly trade down just to put food on the table.

The jobless rate for young black men and women is 30.5 percent. For young blacks–who experts say are more likely to grow up in impoverished racially isolated neighborhoods, attend subpar public schools and experience discrimination–race statistically appears to be a bigger factor in their unemployment than age, income or even education. Lower-income white teens were more likely to find work than upper-income black teens, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, and even blacks who graduate from college suffer from joblessness at twice the rate of their white peers.

Young black women have an unemployment rate of 26.5 percent, while the rate for all 16-to-24-year-old women is 15.4 percent.

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The economy’s seismic shift has been an equal-opportunity offender, hurting various racial and ethnic groups, economic classes, ages, and white- and blue-collar job categories. Nevertheless, 16-to-24-year-olds face heavier losses, with a 19.1 percent unemployment rate, about nine points higher than the national average for the general population.

Their rate of employment in October was 44.9 percent, the lowest level in 61 years of record keeping, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment for men in their 20s and early 30s is at its lowest level since the Great Depression, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies.

Troubling consequences

Unemployment among young people is particularly troubling, economists say, because the consequences can be long-lasting. This might be the first generation that does not keep up with its parents’ standard of living. Jobless teens are more likely to be jobless twenty-somethings. Once forced onto the sidelines, they likely will not catch up financially for many years. That is the case even for young people of all ethnic groups who graduate from college.

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Some studies examining how employers review black and white job applicants suggest that discrimination may be at play.

“Black men were less likely to receive a call back or job offer than equally qualified white men,” said Devah Pager, a sociology professor at Princeton University, referring to her studies a few years ago of white and black male job applicants in their 20s in Milwaukee and New York. “Black men with a clean record fare no better than white men just released from prison.”

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