I had turned in my seat to look down the bar
but I couldn’t help overhearing the guy behind me when he told
his friend, “I don’t want to be mean but I think I am going
to buy a foreclosure.” He said there were real deals in another
county for condos from which the previous owners had been evicted
or from which they had just walked away. Of course, he wasn’t
proposing to do anything wrong but in that statement he expressed
the lingering moral quandary about benefiting from someone else’s
misfortune. It’s the sense you get when going through the endless
supply of offers for foreclosed homes that flood both my snail
and email boxes. And, it’s a good thing to feel that little
twitch or pang at times like this; it reminds us that behind
the flood of bad new statistics there are real live, breathing
people, many of them in pain. I was thinking about that when
the new government employment figures came out last week.
“Minorities often have a tougher time in a weak
job market,” wrote David Madland, analyst for the Center for
American Progress “and that has especially been the case this
month and over the past year for African Americans.” That’s
putting it mildly. “In January, the unemployment rate for African
Americans increased to 9.2 percent from 9.0 percent in December
2007, while the unemployment rate for whites held steady at
4.4 percent. The unemployment rate for African Americans grew
by an astonishing 15 percent between January 2006 and January
2007, from 8.0 to 9.2 percent, while for whites the unemployment
rate dropped from 4.6 in January 2006 to 4.4.”
What that means - when viewed from the angle
of Main Street rather than Wall Street - is that there are a
lot more people out and about unable to find work, especially
the numbers that drew my attention – which few in the media
chose to mention - is the unemployment rate for young African
Americans. It has gone from 29 percent this time last year to
35.7 percent in January 2008 – up from 34.7 in December.
What that means – when viewed from the hood rather
than the Stock Exchange, is that the numbers of black teenagers
on the streets without gainful employment, through which to
earn a living, continues to grow with no seeming end in sight.
It’s easy to become a statistics junkie. The
numbers seem to say so much. Yet, what they say can vary, depending
on your vantage point. It’s sort of like which end of the telescope
you’re peering through. You can search the numbers as most of
the media does and see in them a rise in home foreclosures or
rising joblessness, a threat to the health of the “overall economy,”
or you can see those kids just hanging out and small businesses
hammered by the loss of income into the community.
Overall, unemployment is reported to have dropped
from 5 percent to 4.9 percent, over the first month of this
year. Actually, as noted by the Economic Policy Institute, the
decline was 4.98% in December to 4.93% in January.
Joblessness in the construction industry stands
at 11 percent, having shed 28,000 jobs in January and over 200,000
since last year this time. The weak dollar may recently have
boosted exports somewhat but the affect on employment has been
nil. The number of people working in factories also declined
28,000 over the month. “The percentage of the workforce employed
in manufacturing fell below 10 percent for the first time since
we've been keeping the data,” reported economist Dean Baker
in his “Beat the Press” blog.
percentage of workers out of a job for over six months jumped
in January from 16.2 percent a year ago to 18.3 percent. That’s
1.38 million people who haven’t had a job since last summer.
One estimate is that about 1.28 million unemployed will not
find jobs before June and thus lose their benefits – averaging
$282 a week.
It is now estimated that five states, representing
a quarter of the country’s population, are undeniably in recession.
The Prognosis? The housing market collapse “is rippling through
the rest of the economy and suggests the likelihood of more
pain for millions of American families in the months ahead from
job losses, lower real wages and fewer working hours,” says
the New York Times.
“Given the critical importance of the labor market
to the economic well-being of American families, policy makers
must continue to address the developing recessionary conditions,”
wrote Jared Bernstein in the Financial Times, February
1. “The economy grew at only 0.6% in the last quarter, demonstrably
too slow to promote robust job growth. Long-term unemployment
appears to be on the rise, and most industries are retrenching.
The highly leveraged American consumer is already feeling the
effects of slowing wage growth and faster inflation. Efforts
to stimulate growth through monetary and fiscal policy are now
even more urgently needed.”
Problem is, the effects of the Federal Reserves
interest rate cuts and the Congress-approved economic stimulus
package aren’t expected to kick in until the middle of the year
and then only incrementally. We still have four months of an
uncertain spring to go. Further, there are serious doubts as
to whether they will produce the intended results. Some economists
say we are only proceeding on a wing and a prayer.
Clearly, much more is needed.
Two measures could be enacted that could have
a positive impact on the lives of the jobless and those threatened
with the continuation of what is being called a “flurry of pink
slips.” One is an extension of the time unemployment benefits
are available. The other would be some sort of provision of
benefits for first-time job seekers unable to find work. The
former is being opposed by the freemarketeers in the White House
and the Republican Party. The latter isn’t even being discussed
and I suspect it won’t be until the individuals and communities
affected start to raise the question.
“I wanted to compare national unemployment rates
and African American unemployment rates today with national
and African American unemployment rates from the past to see
how much progress we have made,” said the Rev. David Bryce,
minister of the First Unitarian Society of Westchester, NY,
in his Martin Luther King Day sermon January 20. “The Bureau
of Labor Statistics has monthly unemployment rates going back
to 1948, but black unemployment rates going back only to January
1972. I looked for the national unemployment rate of 5 percent
as close to that as possible - because I wanted an exact match
- and found it in February of 1973. The black unemployment rate
then was 9.5 percent. Now, if we have made a lot of social progress,
things should be dramatically different. In December, not quite
thirty five years after the 1973 figures, the black unemployment
rate was in fact, better, it was 9 percent. But I consider that
to be only marginally better. Ironically, if you go to the nineteen
eighties, things were actually worse. In March of 1989, when
the national unemployment rate was at 5 percent, the rate in
the black community was 11.1 percent.
“By the way, the white unemployment rate for
this past December was 4 percent, less than half that of the
level for African Americans. And that is about what it has been
throughout the entire time that both white and black rates have
been tracked. Black unemployment has stayed at just about double
that of the white rate. By that measure, at least, nothing has
What the country needs is a jobs program. This
would mean a comprehensive attack on unemployment and underemployment
through targeted measures in manufacturing, service and construction.
Everybody seems to agree that the country’s physical infrastructure
is in serious disrepair and unfit to meet the demands of the
new century. Isn’t it time to put people to work – particularly
the young – on bridges, highways and waterways? Much of the
rest of the world is building high speed, environmentally friendly
passenger railway systems, why can’t we? The massive work needed
for transition to a more “green” economy would employ millions.
For people of color, the objective in this period
must be to go beyond the palliatives being prescribed to get
past what President Bush is calling this “rough patch.” What
we need, what the country needs, are serious steps to eradicate
the growing poverty, homelessness, depravation and inequality
around us. This opinion will disturb some people. Some amongst
us are content to insist that all this will be overcome when
we change our attitude and social behavior. It’s a lot easier
than recognizing the challenges and pernicious effects of deindustralization,
globalization and the workings of contemporary, run-amuck capitalism.
And dealing with them.
Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San
Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of
the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism
and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Click
here to contact Mr. Bloice.