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Economy: peeking behind upbeat headlines

NCR Staff

More black youth gain jobs; more inner cities crumble. The complexities of the larger U.S. economic picture continue to bedevil those who look beyond Wall Street, the software billionaires and the current unemployment rate of 4.3 percent (April).

Two examples of the difficulty of balancing the picture are Andrew Cuomo’s recent report, “Now is the Time: Places Left Behind in the New Economy,” and a New York Times May 23 article, “Booming Job Market Draws Young Black Men into Fold.”

Cuomo, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, reveals that despite 4.3 percent unemployment, in one in six central cities unemployment is 50 percent or more above the national average. But what HUD’s study also reveals is that in 72 U.S. cities -- from the largest, such as Los Angeles and New York, to small ones such as Anniston, Ala., and Merced, Calif. -- almost a third of the inhabitants live in poverty.

When headlines butt against headlines, going behind them is essential.

The Times article was based on research by Harvard Professor Richard B. Freeman and William and Mary College Professor William M. Rodgers III, whose studies showed:

In 14 areas where unemployment has been below 4 percent since 1992 (Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Rochester, Minn.; Des Moines, Iowa), the percentage of employed “young, less-educated black men has jumped from 52 percent to 64 percent.”

The jump is impressive.

But viewing the world from the poverty side of the street, rather than the prosperity side, requires turning the figures around. Then the reality appears bleaker: The figures mean that in an area (Raleigh-Durham) where unemployment is currently around 1.5 percent, 36 percent of all young blacks males remain unemployed.

The article, by Sylvia Nasar with Kirsten B. Mitchell, rightly depicted the little bits of good news. The nuanced actuality, including elements in the Times’ own story, finally suggests a different situation, one actually not that much improved.

“Unchanging,” a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist told NCR, “is that in good times and bad, black unemployment generally is two to two-and-a-half that of whites. Period. As for the rest,” the spokesperson said, “the economy is benefiting every ethnic-racial group, every age group. Literally.”

The Times does report that the “problems of young black men are still daunting. Although unemployment among young black men of all education levels is lower now than at the peak of the 1980s expansion, 17 percent compared with 20 percent, it is more than twice that for young white men.”

The article illustrates its case by interviewing a 19-year-old black male inner-city high school graduate now working as a $7-an-hour hotel front-desk clerk as “typical of many young blacks who have benefited from the extended period of low unemployment.”

The National Urban League’s Milton Little offered some other perspectives to NCR.

“Let’s look,” said Little, “at the types of jobs most people are getting. No benefits, and they’re not necessarily learning transferable skills -- punctuality and how to respond to supervision. They’re not being prepared for the challenging jobs of the next century.”

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics spokesperson said that because unemployment is highest among blacks, “during a [worker-short] economic boom, you will see the bigger change in that sector.”

The bureau’s figures show that with the national unemployment rate at 4.3 percent, the unemployment rate for black males was 6.1 percent. “That’s really low,” said the bureau spokesperson. “For black women, 6.8 percent, also low,” he said. “For black teenagers 16-19 -- where unemployment gets up to 40, even 50 percent sometimes -- it’s down to 28.1 percent, good for black teenagers. That compares to 11.6 percent for white teens -- and there’s that two to two-and-a-half times figure.”

“I think the story’s got two sides,” Little, National Urban League executive vice president, told NCR. “Young people adequately prepared in terms of academic background with some elements of entry-level job behavior are being helped by a very strong economy. No question about that.

“There are, however,” he said, “young people trapped in dysfunctional urban schools, not developing the kind of academic preparation they need, who don’t have any experience in the labor market, and are still left on the outside looking in as some counterparts get jobs for the first time.”

On the plus side, continued Little, “I hope it dispels some of the prevailing notion that black males are just not reachable, that they don’t want to work.”

In the Times story, Harvard’s Freeman is quoted saying that the statistics show “how critical it is not to give up on these guys. If you give these kids a break, they come back.”

The other thing, said Urban League’s Little, “is that we just don’t know what’s going to happen if there’s a downturn.” New York City, where the poverty rate is already 23.7 percent, will be among the first to know.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999