The jobs numbers were hailed as good news on Friday, with employers adding more than 200,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate ticking down to 8.8 percent. Less attention was given to the downside of these numbers. Black unemployment remains about twice as great as the national unemployment average -- and is going up, not down.
What is going on here? To some extent, this reflects the old patterns: Minorities are the last hired and the first fired, and the last to be brought in and the first to go.
But it is more than that. The stepladders that hard-working minorities could climb into the middle class are being dismantled. With the migration to the North after World War II, African Americans flooded into cities and eagerly sought jobs in the growing manufacturing sector. But manufacturing has been in decline since the 1980s, as companies began shipping more good jobs than goods abroad.
Then African Americans with growing educational achievement sought employment in the public sector, particularly at the state and local level. As more equal opportunity opened up, they found work as teachers, managers, sanitation workers, cops and firefighters. But now, layoffs of public employees are spreading, and minorities often are those with the least seniority and the first to go. Latinos and blacks also flocked to the residential, often non-union, construction industries, but these were devastated when the housing bubble burst.
This Great Recession has been a Great Depression for young people. Hit with trillions in losses in retirement accounts and housing values, older workers struggle to hold onto their jobs longer. With jobs growth slow, openings for the young are scarce.
Here again, there is a racial divide. Over 40 percent of all African Americans between ages 16 and 19 are unemployed, compared with 21 percent of all whites of that age. This is, without question, a social catastrophe. Young people are graduating from high school or college into the worst jobs situation since the 1930s. Without jobs, they lose skills, discipline, dignity and hope. Economists tell us that those who lose months to unemployment often take years to catch up with their peers, if they ever do.
Beneath this is the continued legacy of discrimination in America. Young African Americans still suffer the disadvantage of unequal opportunity from the start. Too many are born into poverty, raised in broken homes, suffer the savage inequality that comes from the absence of affordable pre-K programs in underfunded public schools trying to cope with the absence of good teachers who flee to affluent suburbs. Urban residents also suffer from the rising cost of and decreasing access to mass transit, making it more and more difficult to get to jobs that might be available in the suburbs.
In Washington, the focus has turned to cutting deficits, not to creating jobs. With interest rates near zero, and businesses sitting on trillions waiting for customers, even conservatives have a hard time arguing that "cut and grow" works. They suggest that businesses aren't hiring because they are worried about potential future tax increases or befuddled by regulations, or lack confidence in the future. More likely, they simply lack customers, as 25 million are still in need of full-time work, wages are not keeping up with rising costs of food and gas, home values are continuing to sink, and Americans continue to tighten their belts.
This is a national emergency. We cannot allow mass unemployment to be the new normal. We cannot write off an entire generation. At the current rate of jobs generation, it will take six years to make up the jobs lost in the Great Recession. Young people can't wait six years to get to work. The long-term unemployed can't wait six years for jobs to come back.
We need a National Commission on Jobs and the Young. We need to focus on the depression that is devastating the newly emerging black middle class and snuffing out hope among the young. And if Washington can't hear this yet, we've got to raise our voices and demand that they listen.