Black Unemployment Hits 16.8%

The national unemployment rate reached 13.3% in May. The good news was that this was a 1.4 percentage point improvement from April. The number of unemployed people improved by 2.1 million to 21 million. However, the jobless rates were uneven across racial, gender and age groups. The unemployment rate of black Americans, which is always worse than the national average, ticked up to 16.8%.

Among the other groups measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among adult men was 11.6%, while the rate was 13.9% among women. The unemployment rate for white Americans was 12.4%. The figure for Hispanics was 17.6%, and among Asians it was 15%. Among teenagers, the rate was 29.9%.

What economists call the “real unemployment rate” certainly took the black number higher, as is the case with all the groups. The number of people “employed part time for economic reasons” was at 10.6 million. These are people who would prefer to work full time. Many are the victims of layoffs.

People who are not in the labor force but want a full-time job numbered 9 million. These people have not actively sought work for four weeks or “were unavailable to take a job.”

When these additional categories of unemployed Americans are added together, economists believe that over 20% of workers in total are unemployed. That means the figure for black Americans is almost certainly above 25%.

The reasons black unemployment is higher than for most other groups have not changed as the economy has fallen apart. These reasons have persisted for decades.

Among the most frequently given reasons for the difference is that anti-discrimination laws are not enforced adequately. While this may be true, it has been difficult to identify, for the most part, among specific employers or in specific industries. That makes enforcement on a wide basis almost impossible.

Much easier to show is the gulf in education. The National Center for Education Statistics shows large gaps in reading and math achievement between black and white children in grades 4 and 12. Data was taken in 1992 and 2015, and no significant improvement was seen between the periods. Education is a marker of both the extent to which people are hired and the level of income for those who are employed.

Some of the differences in the level of math and reading achievement may be based on the sums school districts spend on each student. According to EdBuild, in nonwhite districts, the amount is $11,682. In mostly white districts, the figure is $13,908. The total gap nationwide means “nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts, despite serving the same number of students.”

Another major reason for the employment gap is incarceration rates, many experts argue. According to Pew, “In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners.” That means there were 1,549 prisoners per 100,000 black Americans, compared to 272 per 100,000 whites. The data was based on numbers from federal prisons. The hurdles to employment for people who have been in prison are high.

No single theory or piece of research by itself accounts for the difference in black and white unemployment. However, taken as a body, the research does show that the disadvantages for black workers are extremely substantial compared to whites.