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.
These dire numbers are even worse than they sound. Black America was still trying to climb out of the 2001 recession when the rest of the economy started falling apart two years ago. Black unemployment was 7.6 percent in early 2001; it’s never gotten back down to that number. Like Joel, a whole lot of black workers have been barely making it in the job market for a good bit.
That’s a big deal because the many structural barriers that have long hemmed in black neighborhoods—from predatory lending to a broken criminal justice system—also make job loss a far more consequential and lasting crisis for the average black family.
Families survive tough times by digging into their wealth—savings, stocks, home equity and the like. Wealth creates options. You can go back to school or take a junior-level job in order to change careers. Or you can just ride it out. But the racial wealth gap in America is stunning: For every dollar of wealth held by the median white family in 2007—before the bust—the equivalent black family had just a dime. That makes it a lot harder to get through a layoff without taking on massive debt, which then becomes an added albatross.
Put another way, savvy economists like to measure “asset poverty”—or, whether a family can live at the federal poverty level for three months without new income. In 2004, a whopping 40 percent of black families couldn’t do it, a number twice the overall rate. Add our asset poverty to our jobless recovery from 2001, and it’s little wonder black folks were such easy pickings for the equity-stripping, subprime loans that broke the world.
President Obama will finally outline his plan for dealing with America’s jobs crisis on Tuesday. He’s advanced the speech by threading a rhetorical needle. He’s trumpeted some relative good news—that we lost much fewer jobs in November than expected—while simultaneously acknowledging tough realities. As he said in Allentown, Pa., last week, “Good trends don’t pay the rent.”
But Obama is woefully late to the pity party. Congressional Democrats began insisting jobs lead Washington’s agenda in late summer, and some have loudly complained that the White House is in the way. The Congressional Black Caucus has gone completely off script. Ten CBC members on the House Financial Services Committee not only tried to hold hostage one of Obama’s top legislative priorities, they charged that the White House has for weeks dismissed their concerns over black economic woes.
It’s not every day that the CBC bucks a Democratic president. Yet, Rep. Maxine Waters, who spearheaded the CBC revolt, promised more of the same. “Since last September, we have continuously voted for bailout and reform for the very institutions that created this devastation, without properly protecting the African-American community or small business,” she said. “That stops today.”
Let’s hope she’s serious. Obama likes to say that we can’t recover from this recession by just going back to the old, broken economy. That’s true. But it means policymakers must do more than wag fingers at struggling Americans who use credit like it’s income. It means we, as a country, must make massive investments to build an economy that isn’t defined by inequality.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.