Langston Hughes, the famed Harlem Renaissance poet, in what may be one of his most oft-remembered poems, asked this question: What happens to a dream deferred?
That question, more than any other, may be more pertinent now than ever, as Friday’s August jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that African Americans, and young people in particular, are fast falling behind the rest of the pack.
According to BLS data, unemployment among African Americans, already a bewildering 15.9% in July, shot up to 16.7% last month. As a whole, the nation’s unemployment rate remained static at 9.1% as government and private industry collectively saw hiring grind to a halt in the wake of a protracted debate in Washington over the federal debt ceiling.
But it was among young African Americans, where the unemployment rate edged up to 46.5% in August from 39.2% in July, that the jobless epidemic was felt most, once again underscoring the stark reality that minorities continue to be disproportionately impacted by the country’s persistent post-recession malaise.
And perhaps nowhere else is the disparity more distinct than in U.S. cities like New York. Indeed, a December 2010 report put out by the Community Service Society of New York, an advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers, found that from January 2009 to June 2010—a full year after the recession is thought to have ended—a mere 1 in 4 African American young men ages 16 to 24 held a job.
“The recession has created a landscape of the unemployed and underemployed with particular catastrophic consequences for young African-American men,” said CSS president David R. Jones. “Now young black men between 16 and 24 years have become the banner of hopelessness, particularly here in New York City.”
Just last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the Young Men’s Initiative, a public-private partnership aimed at bridging the gap between the fortunes of black and Hispanic young men and their majority counterparts by supplying more than $127 million in funding support to programs geared toward improving education and job readiness. In an unprecedented move, Bloomberg said he would use his own money to help finance the program.
“When we look at poverty rates, graduation rates, crime rates, and employment rates, one thing stands out: blacks and Latinos are not fully sharing in the promise of American freedom and far too many are trapped in circumstances that are difficult to escape,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “Even though skin color in America no longer determines a child’s fate—sadly, it tells us more about a child’s future than it should.”
Many like Bloomberg fear that if jobs remain unattainable, young people, detached from and therefore at a growing risk of becoming disillusioned with the labor force, will seek out alternative routes—some potentially illegal—of sustaining themselves.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), while blacks and Hispanics make up only one-third of the total U.S. population, they currently constitute close to two-thirds of the prison population.
And current state and municipal budget woes only exacerbate the problem.
New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program, a popular initiative that provides youth ages 14 to 24 with summer employment and educational opportunities and receives well over 100,000 applications annually, recently saw the number of available slots for the program fall from a reported 35,725 in 2010 to approximately 25,000 this year.
According to CSS’s Mr. Jones, such cuts only make the prospect of becoming gainful members of society more and more of a far-reaching prospect for many young people, with a potentially outsized fallout for African Americans.
“Without work, without school, and without a diploma, young African American men are vulnerable for the prison pipeline,” he said. “The absence of training and jobs will provide a clear and uninterrupted pathway to poverty and potential imprisonment.”