“In 1968 when we started tracking unemployment rates in detail, the black unemployment rate was about twice the white unemployment rate, and in 2009 the black unemployment rate is about twice the white unemployment rate. So in the educational sphere, in the economic sphere, [and] in the criminal justice sphere, we have a very long way to go,” said Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Race, Ethnicity, and Economy Program, speaking on a panel on Black Men and the Recession Friday at CAP.
Stephanie Jones, the executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute, gave the introduction to the event, which included a four-person panel. Other panelists included Barbara Arnwine, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Neil Bomberg, a lobbyist at the National League of Cities; and Maurice Emsellem, the policy director at the National Employment Law Project. Alexandra Cawthorne, a Research Associate in the Poverty and Prosperity and Women’s Health and Rights programs at CAP, moderated the panel.
Recently published data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that black men over the age of 19 are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as white men of the same age. This gap has grown in absolute terms during the recession, but the divide is nothing new to Austin, who said that “Black communities have a permanent recession.” The panelists discussed the causes of the employment gap, highlighting some factors and dismissing others.
Austin addressed education and spatial mismatch, which are two factors that are often said to cause the divide. He agreed that education was important, but said, “Even if you make the comparisons with the same education level, you still see disparities.” He also turned his attention to “spatial mismatch,” the term given to unemployment caused by persons living in areas inappropriate for their skill set. Some have attributed the gap to blacks being located in the wrong place to find employment, because blacks are disproportionately represented in urban areas and underrepresented in suburbs.
But Austin dismissed this and explained, “Even when you restrict your analysis to a city like Chicago, you see the same disparities.” He went on to say that Chicago was not an anomaly, citing studies of other cities that found similar results.
The panelists offered some of their own explanations for the continuing gap between white and black male employment. The use of credit histories in employment, for example, contributes to what Arnwine called “the edifice of racial discrimination.” She explained that such histories have a disproportionate effect on people in communities of color because predatory lenders often target them. She said such practices are “reinforcing the cycle the affects credit histories,” and that these communities are caught in the “catch-22 of not being able to get a job to pay our creditors.”
Arnwine argued that credit reports are “riddled with inaccuracies” and that Congress should “prohibit the misuse of credit histories in employment.” She also pointed to studies that found that credit is not a good predictor of workplace theft or turnover.
The criminal records contained within background checks are also a barrier to black men finding employment, according to Emsellem. Because criminal records are often not updated to reflect dropped charges, acquittals, or convictions, up to 50 percent of records are inaccurate or incomplete. He said that it is illegal to use arrests to disqualify someone from a position, and that convictions may only be used if they are significantly related to the job. But such laws are not enforced, leading Emsellem and others to advocate for “ban the box” policies that make it unlawful to bar convicted persons from applying for positions.
Sweeping reform may not be the only way to approach the problem. “Success cities have begun to focus on narrow geographic areas,” Bomberg explained. He pointed to a Milwaukee program in which a small area was targeted by going door-to-door to promote job training and employment programs.
Moving forward will require us to “acknowledge the areas in which we have been stagnant,” according to Austin. As unemployment continues to increase, solving those issues becomes more important. Even when the economy begins to recover, the unemployment gap will likely persist if the systematic barriers to black employment are not addressed.
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