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More Bad News from the Job Market - Left Margin By Carl Bloice, BC Editorial Board

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 black people.

However, 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.

The 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.

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“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 changed.”

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. Editorial 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.

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February 7, 2008
Issue 263

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
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