This article originally appeared in Dollars & Sense:
In July 2003, Mary Clark saw a notice posted
by the time clock at the Pillowtex plant where she worked: the
plant was closing
down at the end of the month. The company would be laying off 4,000
workers. "They acted like we was nobody," she said; Pillowtex
even canceled the workers’ accrued vacation days. Clark had worked
at the textile plant in Eden, North Carolina, for 11 years, inspecting,
tagging, and bagging comforters. By 2003, she was earning more
than $10 an hour.
Clark’s unemployment benefits don’t cover her bills. Because Pillowtex
had sent her and her coworkers home frequently for lack of work
in the final year, her unemployment checks are low, based on that
last year’s reduced earnings. She lost her health coverage, and
now she needs dental work that she cannot afford.
It’s happening again.
In the 1970s, a wave of plant closings hit
African Americans hard. Two generations after the "Great Migration," when millions
of black people had left the South to take factory jobs in Northern
and Midwestern cities, the U.S. economy began to deindustrialize
and many of those jobs disappeared – in some cases shifted to the
low-wage, nonunion South.
The recession of 2001 – and the historically inadequate "recovery" since – has
again brought about a catastrophic loss of jobs, especially in
manufacturing, and once again African Americans have lost out disproportionately.
Jobs that moved to the South during the earlier era of deindustrialization
are now leaving the country entirely or simply disappearing in
the wake of technological change and rising productivity.
Media coverage of today’s unemployment crisis
often showcases white men who have lost high-paying industrial
jobs. But Mary Clark is actually a more typical victim. Recent
job losses have hit black workers harder than white workers: black
unemployment rose twice as fast as white unemployment in the last
recession. Once again, African Americans are getting harder hit,
and once again, they face a downturn with fewer of the resources
and assets that tide families over during hard times.
Last Hired, First Fired
The tight labor market of the late 1990s was very beneficial for
African Americans. The black unemployment rate fell from 18% in
the 1981-82 recession, to around 13% in the early 1990s, to below
7% in 1999 and 2000, the lowest black unemployment rate on record.
But the 2001 recession (and the job-loss recovery since then) has
robbed African Americans of much of those gains.
"The last recession has had a severe and disproportionate
impact on African Americans and minority communities," according
H. Morial, president of the National Urban League. In its January
2004 report on black unemployment, the Urban League found that
the double-digit unemployment rates in the 14 months from late
2002 through 2003 were the worst labor market for African Americans
in 20 years.
The 2001 recession was hard on African American workers both in
relation to earlier recessions and in relation to white workers.
Unemployment for adult black workers rose by 2.9 percentage points
in the recession of the early 1980s, but by 3.5 in the 2001 recession.
White unemployment, in contrast, rose by only 1.4 percentage points
in the early-1980s recession and by 1.7 in the recent downturn.
The median income of black families fell 3% from 2001 to 2003,
while white families lost just 1.7%. Today, black unemployment
has remained above 10% for over three years.
Official unemployment figures, of course, greatly
understate the actual number of adults without jobs. The definition
discouraged people who have stopped looking for work, underemployed
part-timers, students, or those in prison or other institutions.
In New York City, scarcely
half of African-American men between 16 and 65 had jobs in
2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment-to-population
ratios for the city. The BLS ratios, which include discouraged
workers and others the official unemployment statistics leave out,
were 51.8% for black men, 57.1% for black women, 75.7% for white
men, and 65.7% for Latino men. The figure for black men was the
lowest on record (since 1979).
Manufacturing job losses in particular have
hit black workers harder than white workers. In 2000, there were
2 million African
Americans working in factory jobs. Blacks comprised 10.1% of all
manufacturing workers, about the same as the black share of the
overall workforce. Then 300,000 of those jobs, or 15%, disappeared.
White workers lost 1.7 million factory jobs, but that was just
10% of the number they held before the recession. By the end of
2003, the share of all factory jobs held by African Americans had
fallen to 9.6%. "Half a percentage point may not sound like
much, but to lose that much in such an important sector over a
relatively short period, that is going to be hard to recover," said
Jared Bernstein of the Economic
Policy Institute, a progressive economics think tank. Latino
workers increased their share of manufacturing jobs in 2002 and
2003 slightly, though their unemployment rate overall rose.
Some of the largest layoffs have occurred in
areas with large African-American populations – just this April,
for example, 1,000 jobs were cut at a Ford plant in St. Louis
and 300 at a Boeing
plant in San Antonio. Textile plants with mostly black employees
have closed in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., Columbus, Ga., and Martinsville,
Va. The states with the greatest number of layoffs of 50 workers
or more are black strongholds New York and Georgia.
When Autoliv closed its seat belt plant in
Indianapolis in 2003, more than 75% of the laid-off workers were
African Americans. Many
of these workers are young adults who got their jobs during the
labor shortage of the late 1990s even without a high school diploma;
now they have few options. "They were taken from the street
into decent-paying jobs; they were making $12 to $13 an hour. These
young men started families, dug in, took apartments, purchased
vehicles. It was an up-from-the-street experience for them, and
now they are being returned to their old environment," said Michael
Barnes, director of an Indiana AFL-CIO training program for
U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Bruce
Josten isn’t too worried about layoffs: "We’re talking
about transformational evolution – successful companies remaking
their own operations so they’re able to better focus on what
their core mission is. It’s not a deal where everyone gains instantly.
At a micro level, there’s always going to be a community that’s
hurt." The communities that are hurt come in all colors,
but several factors make the micro level pain more severe in
communities of color.
Hard Times Hit Blacks Harder
Prolonged unemployment is scary for most families, but it puts
the typical African-American family in deeper peril, and faster.
The median white family has more than $120,000 in net worth (assets
minus debts). The median black family has less
than $20,000, a far smaller cushion in tough times.
Laid-off workers often turn to family members
for help, but with almost a quarter of black families under the
poverty line, and
one in nine black workers unemployed, it’s less likely that unemployed
African Americans have family members with anything to spare. Black
per capita income was only 57 cents for every white dollar in 2001.
When homeowners face prolonged unemployment, they can take out
a home equity loan or second mortgage to tide them over. But while
three-quarters of white families are homeowners, less than half
of black families own their own homes.
And thanks to continuing segregation and discrimination
in housing, it’s more difficult for black families to relocate
to find work. New jobs are concentrated in mostly white suburbs
with little public
History Repeats Itself
The term "deindustrialization" came
into everyday use in the 1970s, when a wave of plant closings
changed the employment
landscape. From 1966 to 1973, corporations moved over a million
American jobs to other countries. Even more jobs moved from the
Northeast and Midwest to the South, where unions were scarce and
wages lower. New York City alone lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs
in the 1960s.
As today, the workers laid off in the 1960s and 70s were disproportionately
African-American. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that
during the recession of 1973 to 1974, 60% to 70% of laid-off workers
were African-American in areas where they were only 10% to 12%
of the workforce. In five cities in the Great Lakes region, the
majority of black men employed in manufacturing lost their jobs
between 1979 and 1984.
A major reason was seniority: white workers had been in their
jobs longer, and so were more likely to keep them during cutbacks.
Another reason was geography. The Northern cities that lost the
most jobs were some of those with the largest populations of people
of color, and those inner-city areas sank deep into poverty and
chronically high unemployment as few heavily white areas did.
The race and class politics of deindustrialization are also part
of the story. The pro-business loyalties of the federal government
dictated policies that encouraged plant closings and did very little
to mitigate their effects. Tax credits for foreign investment and
for foreign tax payments encouraged companies to move plants overseas.
While Northern cities were suffering from deindustrialization,
the federal government spent more in the Southern states than in
the affected areas: Northeast and Midwest states averaged 81 cents
in federal spending for each tax dollar they sent to Washington
in the 1970s, while Southern states averaged $1.25. Laid-off black
factory workers had no clout, so politicians faced little pressure
to address their needs.
As dramatic as the movement of jobs from the North to the South
and overseas was the shift from city to suburb. The majority of
new manufacturing jobs in the 1970s were located in suburban areas,
while manufacturing employment fell almost 10% in center cities.
In the Los Angeles area, for example, older plants were closing
in the city while new ones opened in the San Fernando Valley and
The new suburban jobs were usually inaccessible for African Americans
and other people of color because of housing costs, job and housing
discrimination, lack of public transportation, and lack of informal
social networks with suburban employers. In a study of Illinois
firms that moved to the suburbs from the central cities between
1975 and 1978, black employment in the affected areas fell 24%,
while white employment fell less than 10%. In another study, some
employers admitted to locating facilities in part so as to avoid
black workers. One study of the causes of black unemployment in
45 urban areas found that 25% to 50% resulted from jobs shifting
to the suburbs. Even the federal government shifted jobs to the
suburbs: although the number of federal civilian jobs grew by 26,558
from 1966 to 1973, federal jobs in central cities fell by 41,419.
Over time, suburban white people gained a greater and greater geographic
edge in job hunting.
Mary Clark has been looking for work for nine
months now without success. Stores get applications from hundreds
of other laid-off
workers; there aren’t enough jobs for even a fraction of the nemployed. "It
used to be that if one plant shut down, there’d be another one
hiring. Now they’re all laying off or closing," she says.
For years Clark had helped her grown daughter
support her two small children. "Now the roles are reversed, and they help
me." She has turned to charities to make ends meet, but some
give aid only once a year, and others won’t help a single woman
without children at home. "It breaks your self-esteem to have
to ask for help," Clark says.
Some of her former coworkers are in more desperate straits than
he is. Some have lost their homes or gone into bankruptcy. Some
people have found jobs far from home and commute for hours a day.
Clark sees crime, divorce, and family violence all rising in the
What job growth there’s been has been concentrated in the low-wage
service sector, which pays less than the shrinking manufacturing
sector. There’s no law of nature that says service jobs are inevitably
low paid and without benefits. Or that manufacturing can’t revive
in the United States. The recent wave of union organizing victories
in heavily black industries such as ealth care represent one source
of hope for creating more decent jobs for African Americans.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968, "When there is massive
unemployment in the black community, it is called a social problem.
But when there is massive unemployment in the white community,
it is called a depression." The New Deal response to the Great
Depression included public works jobs and a strengthened safety
net, most of which excluded people of color. Mary Clark clearly
recognizes what happens when there is no New Deal for unemployed
African Americans: "North Carolina has people who want to
work, but we don’t have anyone pushing work our way. We need the
mills back. We’re people used to working, and when you take the
work away, what do you have left?"
Betsy Leondar-Wright is the Communications Director at United
for a Fair Economy and co-author of UFE’s 2004 report, "The
State of the Dream: Enduring Disparities in Black and White."