Black Advocates Want More Help for the Unemployed

Jesse Washington, Comcast News, December 23, 2009

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There is a growing outcry among black advocates for the Obama administration to target black joblessness with similar training programs and direct job creation.

Black unemployment has climbed from 8.9 percent to 15.6 percent since the recession began in December 2007. In comparison, the nation’s overall rate has risen from 4.9 to 10.0 percent. The white rate climbed from 4.4 percent to 9.3 percent.

Although the gap between black and white unemployment has narrowed, there has been a 1.2 percent decline in the black labor force participation rate, more than any other group–which means that fewer blacks are even looking for work. That has held down the black unemployment rate, because such “discouraged workers” are not included in unemployment statistics.

The Congressional Black Caucus recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for $139 billion in unused bank bailout funds to be spent on a long list of training programs and job-creation efforts, including jobs directly created with federal dollars.

It would be unconstitutional to designate aid or jobs specifically for blacks, so the CBC is asking for at least 10 percent of various funds to be spent in areas where 20 percent of the population is below the poverty line.

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Obama, walking a tightrope on minority issues as the nation’s first black president, has long maintained that he needs to focus on improving employment for everyone, not just for blacks.

“I cannot pass laws that say ‘I’m just helping black folks.’ I’m the president of the entire United States,” Obama told American Urban Radio Networks on Monday. “What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community.”

Obama recently proposed some small business tax credits and tax breaks to encourage hiring. A $174 billion jobs package approved Wednesday by the House includes $2 billion for job training, summer jobs for teenagers and Americorps.

But the disproportionate lack of skills and education among blacks requires a unique solution, Nelson [Robert C. Nelson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center] said.

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Others say the best way to help unemployed blacks is not through job training programs, but by creating jobs in the private sector through tax breaks and lowering the minimum wage.

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Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, says lowering the minimum wage would immediately boost black employment. And instead of jobs funded by the federal government, focusing on education is a better idea, she said.

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But numerous studies show that when white and black workers with identical qualifications apply to the same job, “they consistently favor the white applicants, even though the black applicants are equally qualified,” said Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute.

Among workers with a college education, for example, blacks have a higher unemployment rate, which shows that discrimination is still a major barrier to black employment, said Austin, author of a recent paper titled “Getting Good Jobs to America’s People of Color.”

He thought the CBC proposals would help close the black-white unemployment gap, “but I don’t know what they have in there to address discrimination.”

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