Joel is trying. At 41, he’s never landed a full-time, permanent job. He got started early in the underground economy, selling drugs as a young man in the Bronx and Richmond, Va., which landed him in prison. He served his time and quit dealing a long time ago, but a criminal record sticks to you, particularly in a crowded job market. So he’s trying to weather this recession, but it’s not easy.
For 15 years, Joel surfed building maintenance jobs, work he deeply enjoys. “Buffing, stripping floors,” he says, bragging, “I like putting it clean—to where they could eat off it.” But he got laid off his most recent gig in early 2008, right as Barack Obama took office and the economy started hemorrhaging jobs. He’s been on welfare ever since.
Joel knows he’s a tough hire on paper because he must always check that box admitting he’s an ex-con. So he used to find work through his network, from friends or former employers who knew about an opening. The jobs were often temporary, but there’d be another one around the corner. He could usually patch things together—back before 1 in 10 Americans found themselves unemployed.
Now, Joel’s competing with plenty of people who don’t have records. “I did four years. And it seems like certain jobs I can’t go for,” he says, sighing. “But I know I’ll find something.”
It’s not likely. Black unemployment is at nearly 16 percent. If you count those who have either given up on looking or settled for part-time jobs, nearly a quarter of African Americans are out of work. And if you drill down to young men, it’s more than a third.