When writer Janelle Ross recently wrote about the Black Unemployment Crisis: Loss Of Government Jobs Hurts African- Americans Hardest, as part of a series on Black Unemployment written for The Huffington Post, she uncovered some startling facts. Among the sobering stats, she found that since the beginning of 2008, some 375,000 government jobs have been eliminated, according to the Labor Department, with Black workers hit hardest. In May, the unemployment rate among Black Americans reached 16.2 percent, up from 15.5 percent a year earlier. White unemployment was eight percent, an improvement from the 8.8 percent level of a year earlier, Ross noted.
Among the reason Blacks have been hit the worse is, in part, due to the type of jobs many African-Americans hold. According to Ross, as the government tightens its belt, government jobs are lost and “nearly 21 percent of the nation’s working black adults hold government jobs, as compared to some 17 percent of white workers and 15 percent of Latinos.”
“What may have surprised me the most is just how important public sector jobs are for African-Americans in this country,” Ross tells TNJ.com. “I had not realized that nearly a quarter of working black adults work for the government or that government agencies are collectively the single largest employer of black men. I think the other thing that has surprised me is how little attention has been paid to this issue. African-American unemployment is already approaching 20 percent (it was at 16.2 percent in May) and black male employment levels are at an all-time low. So, it seems odd that job cuts in a sector that employs so many African-American men has received so little attention.”
City University of New York School of Law’s Professor Merrick Rossein, former Commissioner of the City of New York Equal Employment Practices Commission and an expert in employment discrimination law, says the job losses have historic connotations. “The Great Recession of 2008 and the very slow economic recovery caused a profound disparate impact on the employment and unemployment status of African-Americans, as well as on other peoples of color in the U.S. The recent actions taken by Congress to reduce the deficit and the very poor fiscal conditions of state and local governments are exacerbating the very high unemployment rate in the African-American community. Tens of thousands of government employees are losing their jobs, and once again this significantly negatively impacts African-American workers,” he says.
So why have African-Americans, traditionally, gone after government jobs? “After the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, it took decades of litigation, government enforcement and affirmative action programs to open up employment opportunities to African-American workers who, in numerous instances, were discriminatorily denied access to jobs throughout many industries, professions and geographical sectors,” explains Rossein. “Job opportunities in government opened up more quickly than in the private sector, although racial discrimination continues to be a problem in the public sector. For example, last year a federal judge in New York ruled that the NYC Fire Department had intentionally discriminated against African-Americans in hiring and promotions, and ordered the city to change its practices (One of the earliest workforces to integrate was the military through President Truman’s Executive Order in 1948).”
Rossein agrees. “The demographics of the government workforce have developed over the course of time. White workers still outnumber others in government agencies. But, they are also more widely distributed in other industries such as manufacturing, health care, financial services, etc. For Black workers, government jobs have the some of the same appeal that they do for all workers — stability and the sense that one is meeting public needs and providing important services,” she says. “But government work also offers greater protections against workplace discrimination and apparently a better shot at more egalitarian pay and work opportunities. In the private sector (this is true across all industries), African-Americans are disproportionately clustered in low wage jobs. But inside government agencies, about 1/3 of African-Americans hold low-wage jobs, 1/3 hold middle-income jobs and 1/3 hold high-income jobs. And, the wage differences between Blacks and whites, men and women are much smaller in the public sector than they are in the private sector.”
Adds Rossein, “Nevertheless, as it had done after the Great Depression of the 1930’s for many white workers, job opportunity in the public sector in the late 1970,’s through 2000 provided African-American workers decent paying jobs and an entry into the middle-class. Police and fire departments began to diversify because of the pressure of litigation and the understanding that it was good public policy to have the uniformed services look like and understand the communities they were serving, especially in urban areas. As more Black students entered college, there were increased efforts to bring African-Americans into the public schools as teachers. Many others trained and sought work as social workers in other professions in the public sector, and many entered clerical and other lower paying government jobs.”
Time will tell if the government changes course in how it deals with the unemployment issue, or if what is currently being done helps. With the current trend continuing, the outcome looks bleak for African- Americans in the workforce. But can this gloomy picture change? “Many economists argue that deficit reduction at the federal and state levels is wrong at this point. For example, Nobel-Prize in Economics Professor Paul Krugman offers strong data and evidence that the government must spend more now to attack the huge unemployment problem and should provide funding to state and local governments to stem the layoffs,” suggests Rossein.