The Bureau of Labor Statistics “Employment Situation” data for April appeared to contain nothing but good news. Unemployment dropped to the lowest level since December 1969, as it fell to 3.6%. Jobs added in the month totaled 263,000. Notably, however, the jobs situation for black Americans remains substantially worse than that of almost any other group.
The unemployment rate for black Americans was 6.7% in April. That puts it 86% above the national rate for all adults. Other comparisons are worse. The rate for black Americans was 116% higher than for Whites in April and 204% higher than for Asians. Of the major categories the BLS measures, only one group has a worse rate, which was teenagers at 13%.
The Census put the black population at 13.4% of Americans as of July 2017.
There has not been a meaningful change in the Black unemployment rate in the last year, although it has moved up and down slightly as has the overall national number for all Americans in the civilian workforce. Approximately 18% of Americans enlisted in the military are black. Among commissioned officers, the figure is closer to 9%.
There are a number of theories about the large delta between black Americans s and other groups when it comes to employment trends.
What causes the stark differences between black American unemployment and that for the rest of the country, a gap that is not improving? The reasons are not simple, and there is no single dominant one. Among them is that black unemployment in large urban populations is often much higher than the national average for black Americans. This tends to push the national average up because of the large portion of Americans who live in big cities. For example, over 80% of the population of Detroit is black, and the unemployment rate there is still well above the national average.
Another fundamental cause is the number of black Americans in prisons. The imprisonment rate among black Americans was 1,609 per 100,000 people in 2016, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The figure was 274 per 100,000 for white Americans. As prisoners move back into the general population, it is much harder for them to get jobs than other people. Employers often are wary of hiring people with criminal records.
Another likely reason is ongoing segregation, which tends to keep black Americans from the best public schools and better housing. Camille M. Busette, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told 24/7 Wall St. in an interview for its worst Cities for black Americans feature: “People are not walking around, working together, going to school together, taking the same metro together, et cetera. So there isn’t a lot of familiarity.”
By the measure of recession figures, current black unemployment rates are high. In the 2002 recession, the national unemployment rate was barely above 6% at its worst. The same was true during the 1972 recession.
The chasm between the black unemployment rate and that of most other groups in the population has been wide since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started to keep figures. And the trend shows no sign of changing. There is no set of circumstances under which it is imaginable that the unemployment rate among black Americans will ever fall to the level of the national average.