Magazine article The American Prospect

Forgotten Men: The Continuing Crisis in Black Male Unemployment, and How to Remedy It. (Income)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Forgotten Men: The Continuing Crisis in Black Male Unemployment, and How to Remedy It. (Income)

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH THE LAST decade has brought unprecedented prosperity to many Americans, the picture has been decidedly mixed for young black men. Their crime rates have dropped, and their school enrollments have increased, but things are not going so well for young black workers. During the strongest economic expansion since World War II, while the overall unemployment rate fell from 7.5 percent to 4.0 percent, their employment situation improved only mildly (even as the proportion working or looking for work actually dropped).

As the chart on page A37 shows, employment figures for all racial groups tend to rise and fall with the general state of the economy. However, while the white line is relatively flat and the Hispanic line rises, the black line trends downward. By 2000 young black men were 23 to 25 points below the other two groups.

The picture is quite different for women. Young, less-educated black women lagged behind both whites and Hispanics during the 1980s, but they overtook Hispanics as the employment of all three groups rose in the 1990s due to welfare reform and other changes. The black rate went from 37.1 percent in 1991-1992 to 52 percent in 1999-2000. Young, less-educated black women now work at the same rate as their male equivalents, even though many are single mothers looking after young children.

The declining male employment cannot be explained by demographic changes. Indeed, both the average age and the educational level of these young men rose during this period, which should have increased their employment rate. Part of the problem may have been the large increase in female employment, particularly among African Americans (the female share of urban employment increased from 41.8 percent in 1979 to 46.5 percent in 1999-2000). We don't know whether this effect worked primarily on the demand side (young black women taking jobs away from young black men) or on the supply side (young black men feeling less pressure to work because more young black women were working), but either way the effect was likely negative.

A strong economy still makes a big difference, of course. But in the 1990s, the benefits of economic growth were offset by the long-term downward trend in employment. In other words, if the economy hadn't been as strong as it was, things would have been a lot worse.

Why were young black men hit so hard? One factor was the decline in manufacturing jobs. In metropolitan areas, where most young black men reside, blue-collar jobs as a percentage of all jobs dropped from 34.3 percent to 24.6 percent. Not all areas, however were equally affected. The nonemployment of young black males is much more serious in old industrial cities such as Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, than it is in new-economy cities such as Atlanta, Denver, and Tampa.

Another complex factor is crime and incarceration. The crime rate has declined over the last decade, which would lead us to expect increasing employment for young black males. Incarceration has continued to rise, but to the extent that this removes young men with poor employment prospects from society, it should increase the officially measured employment rate. …

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