Black Unemployment Drives 'Perpetual, Slow-Moving Recession'

Black Unemployment Drives 'Perpetual, Slow-Moving Recession'

This article is part of a Huffington Post series examining the state of Black America. To read more, click here.

BRYANS ROAD, Md. -- Tatia Pritchett's 2002 Hyundai Sonata blew a tire early on a Friday morning in June when she was on her way to work.

"I was driving and all of a sudden, KAPOW," she said.

She pulled over and started trying to change the tire, but after removing the first lug nut she couldn't budge the rest. Her mobile phone getting no reception, morning dissolved into afternoon as she waited for help and wondered.

"I had to really think, is this worth it?" Pritchett said. "I'm spending $150 a week in gas because it takes half a tank of gas to get to work and home every day. I'm paying $85 a month in parking."

Pritchett's job is in Baltimore, more than 60 miles from her house, and the trip can take two hours in the D.C. area's awful rush hour traffic. The job pays $14.44 an hour. Subtract the cost of commuting, she's left with near-poverty wages. But she never seriously considered quitting because unemployment would be worse.

"I did that already," she said.

Wonder turned to worry that her unplanned absence could get her suspended or fired. A blown tire away from financial disaster, Pritchett is nevertheless among the luckier ones: At least she has a job.

Blacks bear a disproportionate share of the unemployment burden. The national jobless rate is 7.6 percent; for African Americans, it's 13.7 percent. Since 1979, the unemployment rate for blacks has tracked the same ups and downs as the overall rate, but it's usually been at least twice as high. At the same time, it gets half the attention.

In the fall of 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate topped 10 percent for the first time in a quarter century, causing policymakers and analysts to lament the catastrophe that had befallen the American public. Yet throughout that entire prior period the average rate of African American unemployment had been 12.2 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. And while the gap between poverty for blacks and whites has narrowed over decades, at 27.6 percent the black poverty rate is nearly double the overall rate of 15 percent.

In other words, as EPI scholars wrote in a 2012 book on working America, "African Americans have essentially been living through a perpetual, slow-moving recession."

Pritchett earns slightly more than the median wage for black women, which was $13.13 in 2011, according to EPI. Black men, meanwhile, earned a median wage of $14.26. White women earned a median wage of $15.89, while white men topped the list with a median wage of $19.76.

Since giving birth to her first child in the early 1990s, Pritchett has slowly climbed out of poverty toward a middle class life. She went to school, earning a bachelor's degree in accounting in 2008, but by then the rules had changed. Good jobs have dwindled while low-wage work has proliferated.

"With the recession going down the way it did in 2008 my bachelor's has become a high school diploma," she said.

She'd been unemployed for a year by the time she landed a job at Borders bookstore (the company has since gone bankrupt). After that she had a temporary gig with the U.S. Census Bureau. Thanks to networking at that job, she landed her current one as an accounting assistant for Baltimore's Bureau of Solid Waste.

Pritchett, now 42, recounted her employment history on a recent evening while sewing up a busted couch cushion in her living room. She lives in a cramped house in this modest Washington suburb with her teenage daughter and two sons. The kids' father lives nearby. Their older boy's a high school football player, the younger one a kindergartener eager to give visitors a welcoming hug. Pritchett is proud to say her other daughter is off to college.

She's not proud to say that even though she works, she's poor enough to qualify for $92 a month in food stamps and a housing subsidy that reduces her rent. The amount of help she gets for food and housing depends on how much she's earning -- if she were unemployed she'd qualify for hundreds more. She's grateful for the assistance but does not enjoy having to prove she's poor, having to cough up paystubs and bank statements in order to get help.

"Everything that's in there they have access to, and then they tell you who can be in your account and who can't be in your account," she said. "If I open a savings account for my child I have to let them know."

So she earned a master's degree in accounting this year from Strayer University. The school's website cites a survey saying the median salary for people with master's degrees in accounting is $54,700. Pritchett makes a little more than half that and has more than twice that amount in student debt.

"I really thought at this time I would have a very good income, we would have our own house, I could have the government out of my life," she said.

Pritchett's currently applying for better jobs, blasting resumes out into the void just like so many millions of Americans who don't have enough work. She doesn't think being black is an obstacle, though a friend suggested it might be.

"She was like, 'It could be because people think your name sounds too black.'" Pritchett responded that "Tatia" (rhymes with "Sasha") is actually a Russian name.

She says she's proud of her master's degree and confident she'll be in a better place someday soon, so long as she's patient.

"That's what's keeping me going every day, is the hope there's got to be something out there that's made for me, that somebody will like me and offer me that job," she said.

But it was three hours before a trucker stopped to help that June day when her tire went flat. By that time her car battery had died because she'd mistakenly left the car on, and she said it was another three hours before someone came to give her a jump.

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