Benita Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in public administration. She recently moved to a new city to take her first full-time career position: an entry-level job at a government housing agency. She is 52.
Johnson, who is African American, says she has been working off and on since she was 14. She has worked for temporary clerical agencies, done in-home nursing assistance, and nonprofit work, she was employed by the Census Bureau in 2000 and 2010.
But a long-term career position had eluded her. Johnson counts herself among millions of Americans who are chronically unemployed. In many cases, these Americans may not share her skill set, but they do share her race.
Official unemployment for African Americans exceeded 17 percent in January 2010, nearly twice that of whites and 6 points higher than the nation as a whole. As talk of a quickening recovery filled the airwaves, the unemployment rate for African Americans has since declined to 14 percent. But double-digit official unemployment has been the standard for decades.
The economic crisis has shifted the nation’s focus to job creation, but within the African American community, a 40-year crisis of economic insecurity and dreams deferred exists with solutions that are just as unclear.
Since 1972, when the government began collecting employment data by race and ethnicity, the unemployment rate for African Americans has always exceeded that of their white counterparts by a about 2 to 1, even when taking into account national economic conditions and educational advancement for African Americans.
African Americans also are disproportionately among those who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work — 22 percent — though they comprise only 12 percent of the labor force.
Johnson’s personal and family histories offer glimpses into the historical strides and struggles of employment in the African American community. The Pittsburgh native said her grandfather faced hiring discrimination when seeking a job at a baking plant near their home.
“They pretty much told him if he was black, they weren’t going to hire him,” said Johnson.
Her mother woke at 3 a.m. for her job as a food-service manager at casual-dining chain Hot Shoppes, returning around 6 p.m. each evening. Hot Shoppes grew into the multibillion-dollar Marriott Corporation.
“She wound up training people who went into corporate jobs,” said Johnson, though her mother did not make that leap.
Johnson’s own time at temporary agencies provided employment but not security.
Being moved from workplace to workplace “was pretty much the nature of the environment,” Johnson said. “Although there was the ‘hope’ that you would be picked up as a permanent employee, things like that are few and far between.”
In her job search over time, Johnson has experienced peculiarities she said are attributable to discrimination.
“I’ve been down on my luck, needing to find a job, called to fill out an application, walked in to get the application, and, all of a sudden, they weren’t hiring,” said Johnson.
Good times not shared
April 2000 marked the lowest rate of official unemployment for African Americans in the past 40 years — 7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unemployment among all workers at that time stood at 3.8 percent.
The economy has picked up in recent months, but that gap remains. Only five states had unemployment rates greater than 10 percent in December 2011. But 25 states reported African American unemployment above 10 percent in the third quarter of 2011, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The rate exceeded 20 percent in five of those states, and little change is expected based on projections for 2012.
“This isn’t normal. This isn’t healthy. This has tremendous collateral consequences — education, crime, wealth, marriage,” said Algernon Austin, director of EPI’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy and the author of a new report on black unemployment.
Even when working, African American family households were over-represented among those whose earnings left them below the poverty line, according to 2009 Census data. Austin says poverty rates and other issues are a result of high unemployment in African American families.
“If you reduce or improve those situations for African Americans, you’re going to significantly increase the rates of upward mobility,” he said.
His proposal calls for a federal jobs program that would increase direct hiring by the public sector. Residents of economically depressed communities would be hired for improvement projects in the community.
“We’ve given the private sector and smaller amelioration efforts 50 years to try to solve the problem, and they’ve failed. We need to think much bigger and much bolder to break this ratio,” said Austin.
Wage subsidies would be provided by the government as incentive for employers to hire from and locate in targeted communities of any color facing persistently high unemployment. The programs would phase out after five years or when unemployment was down to 6 percent.
“You see a 30-year decline in good jobs. It’s a serious problem, and it disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos,” said Austin.
Legislative solutions unlikely
Some legislators have proposed large-scale interventions, along the lines of those proposed by Austin. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced the Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act. Its title is taken from a 1978 law that set a goal for full employment.
“Jobs have become the human-rights issue that is understated and, in some cases, not even recognized,” said Conyers, the second-longest serving member of the House and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But the bill, which would create a trust fund for job training and public-sector jobs, has little chance of passage in the current conservative congress. Former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) said some members of his party have failed to speak to African American interests.
“Somehow or another, conservatives think when you talk about minority business or black business, you’re abandoning your conservative values,” said Watts, a former member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Republican inattention to these issues has translated to anemic support from blacks in national elections. African American votes for the Democrat in presidential races have stood near 90 percent since 1964, according to the Joint Center for Political Studies.
Some Republicans are taking note, and focusing on black unemployment. Last month, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, hosted the Conservative Black Forum to discuss issues relevant to the black community, including the jobs crisis.
Watts and other participants in the forum discussed how to direct capital to African American communities for business creation. African Americans represented 9 percent of new businesses started in 2010, according to the Kauffman Foundation. West supports the creation of enterprise zones. Extremely favorable conditions would attract businesses to locate and start in certain targeted zones. Labor, minimum wage and many regulations would be suspended in addition to credits to companies. Watts said creating a favorable business climate would help residents create businesses, to break the cycle.
“You know who hires the most black people in Chicago? Black people. It’s those black small business owners that hire people in the community,” said Watts. “We’re not anti-Republican or anti-conservative to say we ought to incentivize people to attract investment capital in underserved communities.”
The next generation
African Americans are poised to take advantage of areas where job growth will be greatest over the next decade, according to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There are expected to be 5.6 million additional jobs in the health and social assistance industry. African Americans now make up 16 percent of the workforce in this industry, a greater percentage than their share of the total workforce.
But African Americans remain under-represented in another fast-growing industry and clearer path to upward mobility — professional, scientific and technical services.
As the nation transitions further into a knowledge-based economy requiring more education, James McKissic wants to make sure today’s youth are prepared.
McKissic works with the Chattanooga, Tenn., affiliate of the National Urban League, which started a program designed to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. So far, more than 600 students have participated.
“A lot of the students before the program came felt left out because they weren’t athletes, they weren’t jocks, they weren’t cheerleaders,” said McKissic, chief operating officer of the affiliate.
The academy, launched in 2007 as a two-week summer program, has grown into a six-month, after-school program for students in sixth through eighth grades. Students are exposed to various areas of STEM careers through partnerships with Comcast, AT&T and Volkswagen.
“People from Chattanooga and young people who are living and growing up and learning here, we want them to be able to take advantage of those types of jobs,” said McKissic. “And that’s why we’re offering this to our students because we know that it leads to a stable foundation later in life.”
Post-secondary education in any field has not been a guarantee for employment in this economy for anyone, but it does help. The unemployment rate for Americans with a bachelor’s degree is less than half that of the nation overall. Nearly two-thirds of jobs will require post-secondary education by 2018.
But the unemployment rate for African Americans with a bachelor’s degree is still one and a half times the national rate, according to BLS.
Frustration with a lack of job prospects pushed Johnson to finish her bachelor’s degree in 2010 with hopes of leading a more stable life. Johnson’s new position involves taking calls from people who also now struggle.
Reluctantly admitting to having had to rely on public assistance herself, she says helping others keeps her grounded. Hearing their stories has confirmed the stuff of idle chatter amongst friends about the state of the U.S. economy.
“It’s been bad for quite some time, and it’s been particularly [bad] for black people,” Johnson said. She thinks over the past 20 years those bad times are “now catching up with the rest of society,”
Though she is thankful for her current position, a spotty work history and low wages have produced an uncertainty familiar to many in her generation of African Americans. Johnson has never owned a home and doesn’t plan on purchasing one. She sees retirement as impossible.
“When I listen to people talk about the level of job security they’ve had, or how they’ve had this all taken away from them or how they now have to start all over […] I feel for them,” she said. “But I have never had that as a frame of reference.”