The Jobless Rate for Young Black Men Is a National Disgrace

The Jobless Rate for Young Black Men Is a National Disgrace

The rioting in Milwaukee over a police killing of an armed black man has reanimated the issue of longstanding black joblessness. Between 2010 and 2014, Milwaukee’s average rate of black joblessness was 54 percent, compared to rates of only 17 and 26 percent, respectively, among the city’s white and Latino young male population. But the pervasive joblessness of young black men goes well beyond such deindustrialized cities, and it’s effects are devastating on both the young men themselves and their families. 

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey gathered data on the jobless rate of non-institutionalized men, 20 to 34 years old, averaged over the period, 2010-2014, for 34 major US cities. The data paint a grim picture for black men, particularly in the Midwestern industrial and the Mid-Atlantic cities. Like Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C. all had black jobless rates above 45 percent. In these cities, more young black men were either jobless or imprisoned than employed.

Black joblessness in southern and western cities was modestly lower — as low as 31.7 and 23.3 percent, respectively, in Dallas and Seattle. As a result, the national jobless rate for young black men was 39 percent, versus only about 22 percent for both white and Latino young men. These statistics show that weak labor markets cannot be the most important reason for such high black jobless rates. It follows that simply expanding employment opportunities would likely have only a modest effect on the jobless rates in this population.

The black joblessness data have direct ramifications for the black family. Kathryn Edin has linked joblessness to family break-up, causing many mothers to enter into sequential sexual relationships. One outcome is multi-partner fertility: A growing share of black mothers are having children with more than one partner. And once biological fathers move out, a large percentage of them abandon their children — which has particularly harmful effects on boys. 

As these men enter into new relationships, they father additional children. Often these men are caring towards their new biological children, but harsh with children from previous relationships. Statistics indicate that the rate of child maltreatment is three times higher for a mother living with a partner who is not the father of all her children than if she is without a partner.

In a recently published study, Chun Wang and I verified that male joblessness is strongly linked to child maltreatment. Using state-level data, we found that for each 1 percent increase in the male jobless rate, the overall child maltreatment rate increased by almost 1 percent. The differential jobless rates among racial groups goes a long way to explaining the racial disparities in child maltreatment rates.

Due to employment disparities, black men are unemployed out of proportion to their numbers. In many cities, their share of joblessness exceeds 40 percent. When young black men make up such a high proportion of the jobless, racial stereotypes among employers and the police are reinforced. This is certainly the case in Milwaukee, where employer biases and biased transportation policies contribute to much of the racial jobless disparities.   

These large disparities, however, are also an index of the social isolation of young black men. Often living in high poverty neighborhoods, they have deficient networks of contacts that can recommend them for jobs. While direct discrimination is in play, this lack of social networks helps explain why young black men have substantially higher rates of joblessness than other minority groups, such as Latinos.

The importance of such networks is vividly depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film "Gran Torino," in which an elderly white man befriends his teenage neighbor, who comes from a family of Hmong immigrants. Wanting to help the boy gain employment, the older man (played by Eastwood) contacts a friend who has a salvage company. By prepping him on how to look and what to say, Eastwood’s character helps ensure that the boy gets hired. This illustrates how difficult it can be for young black men to be considered for available jobs, even when employers have no overt racial animus.

What can be done about this state of affairs? 20 years ago the answer would have been to increase teen employment to allow disadvantaged youth to get the interpersonal skills that would aid them in gaining long-term employment. Over the last two decades, however, teen employment rates have plummeted, particularly for black youth, making this strategy no longer viable.

As a result, many favor improving college access with the hopes that many of these young men will attain college degrees. And yet, despite substantial expenditures, the vast majority of these young men do not gain community college degrees, let alone four-year degrees. A better strategy is to pay more attention to certificate programs that range from 8 to 15 months, particularly those offered by the public sector or the best-practices for-profit colleges. These programs enable students to avoid the remediation hurdles they experience in community colleges and provide success markers in a shorter period of time — successes that can be built upon.

We must also take seriously the legal employment barriers, especially given the breathtaking reality that one-quarter to one-third of all black men have been incarcerated. The expanded use of “ban the box,” i.e., not checking criminal justice information until the end of the hiring process, has improved employment prospects for black men seeking jobs with no restrictions on hiring the previously incarcerated. But a wide range of occupations remain unavailable to the previously incarcerated — including in most health and educational institutions — regardless of the quality of their lives since conviction.

To change the employment trajectory of young black men, we must look beyond traditional academic tracks and eliminate blanket restrictions that limit employment of the previously incarcerated.

Robert Cherry is an economist at Brooklyn College and the CUNY graduate Center. His publications on black labor include "Race and opportunity," National Affairs (Winter 2016).

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