Today’s employment report has largely been seen as positive news, and for good reason. Two-hundred twenty-seven thousand new jobs were created in February, and the previous month’s employment figures were also revised upwards, making the gains even more impressive than previously thought. Despite this fact, headline unemployment rate number remained unchanged at 8.3 percent. How could this be?
It’s because the participation rate, which measures the percentage of working-age individuals who are employed or unemployed and looking for a job, actually increased in February, after falling in January. That is to say, that while there are more people finding jobs, there are also more looking for jobs than before. This can also be seen as a positive indicator, as it means that people have more hope that jobs are available than they did previously.
Unfortunately, black unemployment actually increased from 13.6 percent to 14.1 percent. This is distressing, for obvious reasons, and to see the positive momentum that occurred last month come to a halt, while the rest of the economy continued to tread water at worst, speaks to the fragile state of the recovery in the black community.
That being said, part of the rise in the black unemployment rate, as with the broader economy, is due to an increase in the participation rate in the black community. In fact, when analyzing another key indicator, the employment-population ratio, the percentage of working age people who were working was essentially flat.
This context is not meant to excuse the fact that black communities still experience extremely high levels of unemployment, especially in specifically distressed areas of the country, nor that the gap between black unemployment and the rest of the country is not closing fast enough.
In fact, there remain some ominous signs when looking beneath the headline numbers. Most alarmingly, unemployment increased substantially for black males in February to 14.3 percent, up from 12.7 percent in January — this despite the fact that the participation rate and employment-population ratio both decreased.
That is to say, the black male unemployment is climbing, even as the percentage of working-age black males who are actively looking for work is falling. That should raise a lot of eyebrows in our communities, as well as in Washington.
It has been well-known that black male unemployment has been consistently elevated, and significantly higher than the unemployment rate of black females (which decreased from 12.6 percent to 12.4 percent in February). A recently released University of Wisconsin study provided the sobering fact that black participation rates have fallen precipitously in almost all of the major metropolitan areas in the US.
This could be due to a range of factors, including issues that affect all males in our current economy. For instance, industries that have been traditionally male-dominated, like construction and manufacturing, have been hit far harder than other industries that have traditionally employed more women, such as nursing. Specific to the black community, education outcomes for black males certainly contribute to the disparity, as well as complications related to finding employment with a criminal record.
The problems are many, and easy to find, but coming up with solutions is considerably more difficult.
Improving education for males is essential in the long run. Tackling harmful drug policies, which result in higher levels of black males being incarcerated (and therefore less employable post-incarceration), would also have a positive effect. Furthermore, specifically providing resources for initiatives such as the Black Male Achievement Campaign, which focuses on “addressing black men and boys’ exclusion from economic, social, educational, and political life in the United States,” would also be of benefit in identifying the causes of, and finding additional solutions to, the continuing crisis.
Needless to say, this is very important, not just for the black community, but for the country as a whole. The most recent jobs report clearly highlights that to address black unemployment requires addressing the issues contributing to that unemployment as well.
Without doing so, black males are likely to continue to lag, which has large downstream effects ranging from crime to familial stability, all of which affect our society negatively. All of us need to increase the focus on this fact, make it a priority, and make sure those in Washington take notice as well.
Gerald Mitchell is the creator of Power Collective, where he works to support and promote small and socially-responsible businesses. Previously, he worked in community and economic development as an adviser to, and investor in, inner-city small businesses.