POLITICS

Fed Chair To Jobless African-Americans: You're On Your Own

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told members of the House of Representatives in a hearing on Wednesday that the Fed's concerns about inflation limit its ability to address high African-American unemployment. 

“So, there really isn’t anything directly the Federal Reserve can do to affect the structure of unemployment across groups,” Yellen said during the House Financial Services Committee’s semiannual hearing on Federal Reserve policy. “And unfortunately, it’s long been the case that African-American unemployment rates tend to be higher than those on average in the nation as a whole.”

The African-American unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in June, nearly twice the rate of 5.3 percent in the population overall.

But Yellen said that the Fed’s ability to address this problem was limited by its commitment to keeping inflation under 2 percent.

Yellen’s remarks were in response to a question posed by Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) as to whether the Fed was taking the high rate of African-American unemployment into account when assessing the health of the labor market. Beatty was one of several African-American committee members, including ranking member Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who enjoined Yellen to consider the disproportionately high rate of African-American unemployment in deciding when to raise interest rates. 

 At the hearing, Yellen reaffirmed the Fed’s previous indications that it would raise interest rates before the year’s end. "If the economy evolves as we expect, economic conditions likely would make it appropriate at some point this year to raise the federal funds rate," Yellen said in her prepared testimony.

 

Maintaining price stability is one-half of the Fed’s dual mandate, together with maximizing employment. If the Fed prints more money, it spurs higher employment, ultimately putting upward pressure on prices. If it tightens the monetary supply, by raising interest rates, it keeps prices low, but also depresses employment. 

Many progressive economists and activists fault the Fed for continuing to prioritize the inflation part of its dual mandate at the expense of full employment. It is a tendency they say disproportionately affects African-Americans, who already suffer from high unemployment and discrimination in the job market.

Jordan Haedtler, deputy campaign manager of the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fed Up campaign, which mobilizes communities of color for pro-employment Fed policy, said that Yellen’s Wednesday remarks are a reflection of this approach.

“It is indicative of the Fed’s continued emphasis on inflation even in the face of nonexistent inflation,” Haedtler said. “They are myopically focused on one portion of their dual mandate while ignoring another. If the Fed is saying that the economy is on enough of a positive trajectory to raise rates, they are saying they are OK with 9.5 percent black unemployment.”

The Fed Up campaign wants the Federal Reserve to wait for more significant wage growth before raising rates.

It is also encouraging regional Federal Reserve banks, along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to sell homes with delinquent mortgages to nonprofit organizations that are more likely to refurbish them. Currently, Fed Up claims, the homes often go to for-profit buyers who leave them in disrepair, limiting the economic recovery in many urban communities of color.

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