The unemployment rate is falling for the third month in a row, and in December about 200,000 private sector jobs were created. The monthly unemployment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that unemployment has declined by six tenths of a percentage point since August. Already, some economists are saying we can expect another decline next month.
I am surprised, however, at the very tepid language that the Employment Situation report uses to describe the increase in African American unemployment. A rise of .3 percent among African Americans, the second rise in as many months, is described as having "changed little". It has changed enough so that while some are celebrating gains, African Americans are losing. Indeed, the African American unemployment rate increased from 15.5 to 15.8 percent.
Black women, it turns out, are losing more than most. While the unemployment rate for adult African American women, at 13.9 percent, is still lower than the male rate of 15.7 percent, African American men gained jobs this year, while African American women lost them. Why? Nearly one in four (23 percent) African American women works for government, and federal, state, and local governments are releasing workers, not hiring them. And while some governments will attempt to get the economy moving by creating construction and redevelopment opportunities for men, teachers, nurses and social workers, mostly women, are walking on eggshells in fear of job losses. Even when we know that smaller classroom size gives a better yield in terms of educational results, school districts are being forced to shoehorn another student or two into already-crowded classrooms because of cost issues.
The data that comes from the Employment Situation report is, probably much lower than the reality of African American unemployment. When we include those marginally attached to the labor force (stopped looking, etc.), as well as those part time workers that want full time work, the unemployment rate for the total population is not 8.5 percent, but 15.2 percent. And the estimate of the African American unemployment rate would be not 15.8 percent, but a whopping 28.3 percent. More facts – though the number of officially unemployed people is dropping, it is still high enough with 13.1 million actively looking for word and not finding it. And the average person has been out of work for 40.8 weeks, six weeks longer than a year ago. The headlines blaze optimism, the reality is different.
Add to this a recent report that says that the wealth gap between Congress and their constituents is growing. In 1984, the average member of Congress had wealth of $280,000, excluding home equity. In the twenty years since 1984, Congressional wealth grew by two and a half times, to $725,000. Again, this doesn't include home equity. In contrast, the median wealth of an American family actually dropped slightly to around $20,500, again, not including home equity. It is very likely that when home equity is added, the gap is even larger.
This wealth gap perhaps explains why Congressional representatives are more interested in tax cuts than in creating jobs. It explains, perhaps, why Republicans so resisted President Obama's plan to extend the Social Security tax cut and also to extend unemployment rate insurance. Congress is operating in their own self-interest, they aren't thinking about their jobless and economically challenged constituents.
If these members of Congress got calls from bill collectors, lived with less money than month, had to deny their children a new pair of shoes or an after-school trip because of dollars, or actually had to visit a grocery store on a budget, they might have not so hesitated before they eventually capitulated to President Obama's determination. Still the growing wealth gap perhaps explains why so few are alarmed at some of the unemployment rate data.
To be sure, it is exciting to see unemployment rates drop, even slightly. It suggests that some of the Obama policies are working. But someone has to explain why these policies aren't working for African Americans, especially for African American women. If this trend continues, the Obama Administration will have to consider targeting some relief to those who aren't benefitting from the unemployment downturn. Some analysts, myself included, have been advocating programs targeted toward the inner city, toward service employment, toward unemployed youth, for quite some time. The unemployment rate gap, the fact that there are clear winners, and also clear losers in the current changes, make targeted employment programs far more imperative.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, NC.