The new unemployment numbers released today are an improvement over last month, but, by all calculations, still pretty bad. Like last month, the last year, and indeed the last 30 years, the numbers show what we already know: Blacks and other people of color are facing much higher rates of unemployment. As disturbing as the disparities are — official black unemployment was 80 percent higher than whites in December—there’s a chance it could get worse.
Unless the government acts immediately to address the structural causes of racial inequities in the fallout of the recession, there’s good reason to suspect that when overall unemployment rates start to fall, people of color will still be left without jobs. In fact, it’s already started to happen. As of December, white unemployment fell slightly from the month before while blacks and Latinos continued to see more losses.
Watch “ColorLines: Race and Economic Recovery,” Only on LinkTV
At 4:30 am on a bitter cold morning in Hartford, Connecticut, three men sat half asleep, heads resting on their knees, outside a temporary work center. Hoping to beat the crowds, they had been there since 3:30, though the center would not open for another hour. When the doors opened at 5:30, about 25 men and two women were gathered at the barren building, smoking cigarettes outside the front door or waiting in plastic chairs inside. Some would wait all day and go home without work.
A 48-year-old black man dressed in a navy jacket and work boots, stood on the step smoking a cigarette. “The majority of us been coming here for two years,” he said. “We been out of work since then. More people been losing their regulars.” A younger Latino man asked him for a cigarette and said, “I’ve been coming here longer than that. It’s been off and on for years.”
Hartford’s economy has been hurting for decades, since manufacturing moved out. The abandoned remains of old brick factories are scattered throughout the city.
It is a city of color. After World War II, Puerto Ricans and Southern blacks migrated here for jobs in factories and tobacco fields nearby. When these jobs left, the people stayed and communities of color now remain in a city without much work, sometimes impossible public transportation to get there and deteriorating housing stock. The man in the work boots said, “the buses here have us in a strangle hold. Even if we could get jobs, how we gonna get there.” The city is now one of the poorest in the country, nestled within one the nation’s richest states.
Communities of color have consistently faced levels of unemployment that whites encounter only in a deep recession like this one. Families of color continue to experience higher rates of foreclosure, neighborhoods of color are filled with payday lenders and other predatory financial services and the safety net has failed many low-income people of color who don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. Meanwhile, what little work there is doesn’t pay enough to support a family.
Senate Democrats are promising a new jobs bill as soon as Monday and Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “our number one emphasis is going to be creating jobs.” But as Washington moves to pull the country out of double-digit unemployment, longstanding inequities cannot be ignored. Investment in targeted job training and especially job creation is needed now. More attention needs to be paid to how discrimination and inadequate public transportation lead to the exclusion of workers of color before new policies can be effective. Finally, the jobs must be “good” jobs with benefits and living wages. As the country builds toward recovery, the question is, what kind of country will we be on the other end?
WATCH THE GRIO’S DAVID WILSON DISCUSS UNEMPLOYMENT ON ‘THE DAILY RUNDOWN’ HERE: