America’s jobs crisis is hurting everyone. But for African-American communities, it’s a catastrophe. Unless America takes immediate steps to create jobs now—jobs where the people are—the damage will become even more entrenched, threatening generations of African Americans.
So many of the communities we live in were in economic freefall before this recession even started. The demise of manufacturing and construction jobs robbed millions of us entry to the middle class and plunged African-American communities into economic tatters. More than 16 percent of African Americans are officially unemployed—and that’s not counting those who can only find part-time jobs or have just given up looking for work altogether.
Unemployment has shrunk local tax bases, eroding education and destroying public jobs, public services, public safety and, in general, the quality of life in our communities. In the metropolitan areas with the nation’s highest unemployment rates, most of the residents are black. And the places where blacks live were deliberately targeted for subprime lending schemes—so we’ve been disproportionately slammed by foreclosures and bankruptcies.
This is no ordinary recession. The fabric of whole communities has been unraveled. The economic scarring of African Americans may endure for generations. The child who is hungry today and can’t concentrate in her over-crowded classroom starts with the deck stacked against her. Maybe her state has cut teachers, guidance counselors, police and funding for higher education. Twenty to 30 percent of the adults around her may be unemployed. Her pain is not hers alone—with so little opportunity, her pain will also be her children’s.
Unlike the era of the Great Migration northward in search of jobs and hope, today there’s nowhere left for us to go. So we need to create jobs where the people who need them are.
The AFL-CIO has laid out a five-point plan to save and create millions of jobs in the next year. Nowhere is immediate action more needed than among the African American community, who have been carrying the heaviest weight of the crisis.
First, Congress must extend for at least 12 months the lifeline of unemployment insurance, health care and food assistance for workers who have lost jobs. A record 38 percent of the unemployed overall have been without jobs for 27 weeks or more, but African Americans remain jobless for an average of five weeks longer than others. Maintaining the lifeline is not an option—it’s food on the table and a roof overhead. In short, it’s survival.
We’ve also got to put people to work fixing America’s broken infrastructure—our crumbling schools and bridges, highways and water and sewer systems. At the same time we can pump life back into de-industrialized communities by retooling shuttered factories and building new facilities for jobs in green technologies. It’s happening now in places like Gary, Ind., and Detroit—but Congress has to invest more to jump start these efforts and take them to a far larger scale. Restore middle class jobs and we restore hope.
We need to rescue states and communities that are being strangled by budget shortfalls. Not only can federal investments save desperately needed middle-class jobs, they can make distressed communities safer and much more livable. The economic recovery package passed earlier this year helped, but it didn’t approach the level of need.
Small businesses are the key engine for local job growth—but the banks we so generously bailed out still aren’t lending. Congress can change that by hiring community banks to lend leftover TARP money directly to small and medium-sized businesses for job creation right where we live.
One of the most significant things we can do for jobless African Americans and distressed communities is to connect people without work directly to work that is crying to be done—from cleaning up abandoned buildings to driving seniors to the grocery store. If the private sector won’t create jobs, government must. These cannot take the place of existing public jobs and must pay competitive wages so we’re not replacing good state and local government jobs with temporary or poorly paid positions.
Saving and creating jobs alone won’t solve the engrained economic problems of African Americans in devastated communities. But it’s the start we need—right now—as we continue rebuilding an economy that works for our streets, not just Wall Street.
Arlene Holt Baker is executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.