OP-ED: We Must Act to Halt Downward Spiral in Black Communities

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For as long as unemployment data by race have been collected (about 39 years), black unemployment has been roughly double that of whites. Today, the black unemployment rate is an alarming 16 percent. If discouraged workers are included, that number would be much higher.

The causes of disproportionate unemployment in the black community are many and varied, but economists believe that the main three are the lingering effects of discrimination, the educational attainment gap and economic segregation.

The erosion of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, coupled with the anti-government attack on public-sector jobs, have worked together to exacerbate these historical inequalities.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that between 1979 and 2007, manufacturing jobs held by blacks fell from 23.9 percent to 9.8 percent. The auto industry, for example, has had above-average employment for blacks for a long time, but it has crumbled, meaning that the loss of jobs has been devastating for that community.

Similarly, the assault on public-sector workers — teachers, social workers, food inspectors and more — has a clear racial impact. United for a Fair Economy’s 2011 State of the Dream report notes that blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to hold public-sector jobs, and 70 percent more likely to work for the federal government.

Unemployment levels experienced in the black community continue to concentrate high levels of poverty in already-struggling communities, which has profound social effects in perpetuating a downward spiral of crisis. Children growing up here are exposed to high rates of crime and violence, to low-quality foods, and to some of the worst-performing schools, with a lasting impact throughout their lives.

Policymakers in Washington must take bold action to break this cycle. Leaders need to target job creation and retraining strategies in communities hardest hit by the Great Recession. Targeting job creation strategies will help lift struggling black communities in ways that the “shovel-ready” focus of previous job creation efforts cannot.

That’s one reason the Congressional Black Caucus in 2009 called for more job creation funding for economically distressed communities. As unpalatable as it is to the austerity mindset in Congress, increased federal government spending is necessary to keep people working, including black Americans.

This op-ed was originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on October 25, 2011.

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