Unemployment May Be Dropping, But It's Still Twice As High For Blacks

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People attend a job fair in October, 2015, at Dolphin Mall in Miami. (AP)
People attend a job fair in October, 2015, at Dolphin Mall in Miami. (AP)

The jobs numbers are in: 150,000 jobs were added to the economy in January. That's fewer than expected, though the unemployment rate fell to an eight-year low.

President Obama took the opportunity this morning to take a shot at some of his more vocal opponents.

"The United States of America, right now, has strongest, most durable economy in the world," he said. "I know that's still inconvenient for GOP stump speeches, as their 'Doom And Despair' tour plays in New Hampshire — I guess you cannot please everybody."

There was a lot of good news in the report: It wasn't just hours worked that went up, pay went up too — and that hasn't happened in years.

But those things aren't true for everyone.

"One of the problems is that we continue to have a tale of two economies," says Imara Jones is a economist and writer. "[The improvement] is mostly true for people who are white, have good educations, and are tied to those sectors that are flourishing in the global economy. And then we have the economy of everyone else that has been left out and left behind"

One of the groups left behind is African-Americans. Their unemployment rate, 8.8 percent, is more than double the rate for whites, 4.3 percent, and is actually closer to the 9 percent unemployment rates whites experienced in the depths of the recession. And for blacks, the rate actually went up last month.

Lowell Blackmon, 20, is working on getting a GED — and on getting a job.

"Right now, any type of job that, you know — that can pay me," he says. "I'm good with my hands, so I like to work a lot. They got a lot of jobs out here, you just gotta have your stuff to be able to do it."

Valerie Johnson, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, says part of the reason the unemployment rate for blacks may have gone up is because more were looking for work.

"Perhaps people who were previously unemployed were encouraged by last month's numbers and are now looking for employment," she says, adding that while there's good news for everyone in this months' report, "we still maintain that roughly 2-to-1 ratio between black and white unemployment."

"That disparity is very persistent," Johnson says, "and it's present whether we're in a recession or in a recovery. It's present at all levels of education."

Gwendolyn Cole hopes she's one of the workers headed in the right direction — she's been out of a job for two years, but just got an interview with the utility company Pepco.

"I'm so happy about it, 'cause I did 15 years with D.C. Public Schools, and then I turned around and did 15 years as home child care provider," she says. "So I went into electronics, and it's a wonderful field, because it's more data entry, customer service."

Cole's work history shows why many African-Americans are struggling to make their way out of the last recession, says Imara Jones.

African-Americans are more likely to be teachers and firefighters and police than their white counterparts — in part because of the strong anti-discrimination laws that exist for government jobs that you don't have in the private sector," he says. "And of course during the Great Recession, one of the greatest lagging sectors in jobs was that — in government."

Jones says though there is a still a lot of good news, but a lot of people especially African-Americans — don't feel like they're benefiting from it yet.

"Once you have labor force participation going up, unemployment coming down, wages going up and hours going up, that's the sign of a recovery — but we're not there yet," he says.

But economists Imara Jones and Valerie Johnson do say we're getting closer — one little step at a time.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's the first Friday of the month, which means we get some insight into how the economy's doing. The Labor Department reported that 151,000 jobs were added in January. That's fewer than expected, but at the same time, the unemployment rate fell to an eight-year low. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Earlier today, President Obama walked into the briefing room to crow somewhat about the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: The United States of America right now has the strongest and most durable economy in the world. I know that's still inconvenient for Republican stump speeches as their doom and despair tour plays in New Hampshire. I guess you cannot please everybody.

GLINTON: There was a lot of good news in the report. Hours were up, and pay went up. That hasn't happened in years. But - now, come on, with this economy, you were expecting a but, weren't you?

IMARA JONES: One of the problems is that we continue to have a tale of two economies.

GLINTON: Imara Jones is an economist and writer.

JONES: We have an economy that is mostly true for people who are white, have good educations and are tied to those sectors that are flourishing in the global economy. And then we have the economy of everyone else that has been left out and left behind.

GLINTON: One of the groups left behind - African-Americans. The unemployment rate for African-American men is twice what it is for whites and it actually went up last month. Lowell Blackmon is 20 years old. He's working to get a GED, and he's looking for a job.

LOWELL BLACKMON: Right now, any type of job that, you know - that can pay me. I'm good with my hands so I like to work a lot 'cause they got a lot of jobs out here. You just got to have your stuff and be able to do it.

GLINTON: Valerie Johnson is an economist with the Economic Policy Institute. She says part of the reason that the unemployment rate for blacks went from 8.3 percent to 8.8 percent is because more blacks were looking for work.

VALERIE JOHNSON: Perhaps people who were previously unemployed, you know, were encouraged by last month's numbers and are now looking for employment.

GLINTON: And so you think that that 8.8 is a good sign?

JOHNSON: I will never call 8.8, (laughter), percent unemployment good but it's moving in the right direction.

GLINTON: Johnson says there is some good news for everyone in this jobs report.

JOHNSON: We still maintain that roughly 2 to 1 ratio between black and white unemployment. So that disparity is very persistent and it's present whether we're in a recession or whether we're in a recovery. It's present at all levels of education, so college graduates have a nearly 2 to 1 unemployment rate ratio.

GLINTON: Gwendolyn Cole is one of the workers headed in the right direction, she hopes. She's been out of a job for two years but now she's got an interview with the utility company Pepco.

GWENDOLYN COLE: So I'm so happy about it 'cause I did 15 years with D.C. Public Schools and then I turned around and did 15 years as a home child care provider. So I went into electronics, and it's a wonderful field because it's more data entry, customer service.

GLINTON: Cole's work history shows why many African-Americans are struggling to make their way out of the last recession, says Imara Jones.

JONES: African-Americans are more likely to be teachers and firefighters and police than their white counterparts in part because of the strong antidiscrimination laws that exist for government jobs that you don't have in the private sector.

GLINTON: Jones says there is still a lot of good news, but a lot of people, especially African-Americans, aren't feeling it yet.

JONES: Once you have labor force participation going up, unemployment coming down, wages going up and hours going up, that's the sign of a recovery, but we're not there yet.

GLINTON: But all the economists say we're getting closer, one little step at a time. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.