Black women benefiting during weak jobs market

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Last week’s jobs report was on the weak side as U.S. economic growth, which recently had shown some signs of life, stalled in April. While overall unemployment fell one percentage point to 8.1 percent, the labor force only added 115,000 jobs, down 39,000 from the previous month.

The percentage of the working age population that is participating in the job market is at its lowest rate in 30 years. Somewhat hidden in the tepid news are positive numbers for one segment of the population: black women.

Since December 2011, black women have knocked more than 3 percentage points off of their unemployment rate, going down from 13.9 percent to 10.8 percent. That drop is the largest for any demographic group, with the growth concentrated in education, health care, and the retail industry.

Meanwhile, unemployment for their black male counterparts has gone down from 15.7 percent in December to 13.9 percent currently. White men and women both have an unemployment rate just below 7 percent, but the gap between black and white workers has closed significantly since the economic downturn began.

The lack of enthusiasm over the April jobs report is due to the fact that nearly 342,000 workers dropped out of the labor force. Such a high number for the economic indicator known as the “labor force participation rate” is cause for alarm because it means that, while the overall unemployment number went down from March to April, it wasn’t because of an improving economy and increased opportunities for the unemployed. It means that a significant number of job seekers are leaving the workforce and aren’t being counted in the overall rate. Many of those workers are long term unemployed for whom unemployment insurance has run out or who have had difficulties landing new jobs because of lack of employment for such long periods of time.

The reason the positive numbers for black women stand out amongst this mediocre economic outlook is because their changing rate was not the result of a decrease in the “labor participation rate.” In fact, black women, by and large, are getting back into the market and the workforce. The “labor participation rate” for black women has increased from 53.5 percent in December up to 56.1 percent in April’s jobs report.

Overall, the economy has a long way to go before it fully recovers from the financial crisis that left so many unemployed. Nearly 9 million jobs were lost and, as of April 2012, only 3.7 million jobs have been added back in. The jobs numbers are important politically as we head into election season, where both sides cherry pick data which they can spin in their favor or to attack the opposition.

The numbers reflect an economy still reeling from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and, even though there are significant positive signs for black women, the rest of American workers are not out of the woods yet.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @zerlinamaxwell