July 12, 2003
Blacks Lose Better Jobs Faster as Middle-Class Work Drops
nemployment among blacks is rising at a faster pace than in any similar period since the mid-1970's, and the jobs lost have been mostly in manufacturing, where the pay for blacks has historically been higher than in many other fields.
Nearly 2.6 million jobs have disappeared over all during the last 28 months, which began with a brief recession that has faded into a weak recovery. Nearly 90 percent of those lost jobs were in manufacturing, according to government data, with blacks hit disproportionately harder than whites.
At the same time, jobless black Americans have been unusually persistent about staying in the labor force. Having landed millions of jobs in the booming 1990's, they have continued to look for new ones in the soft economy, and so are counted now as unemployed; if they gave up trying to find work, they would not be counted.
These two phenomena help to explain why the black unemployment rate, though still not high by historic standards, is rising twice as fast as that of whites, and faster than in any downturn since the mid-1970's recession. Low-wage workers and women who went from welfare to work in the 1990's have largely kept their jobs; factory breadwinners have borne the pain, men and women alike.
"The number of jobs and the types of jobs that have been lost have severely diminished the standing of many blacks in the middle class," said William Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
In Indianapolis, for example, Autoliv, a Swedish manufacturer of seat belts, is closing a plant and laying off 350 workers, more than 75 percent of them black. Many are young adults who were hired in the late 1990's when the unemployment rate in Indianapolis was only 2 percent and Autoliv, to recruit enough workers to expand production, hired young men without high school diplomas.
"They were taken from the street into decent-paying jobs; they were making $12 to $13 an hour," said Michael Barnes, director of an A.F.L.-C.I.O. training program that helps laid-off workers in Indiana search for new jobs. "These young men started families, dug in, took apartments, purchased vehicles. It was an up-from-the-street experience for them, and now they are being returned to their old environment."
It is not only the recently hired who are losing jobs. So are tens of thousands of textile workers in the South, many with long tenure, as production in the industry shifts to China and India. Bruce Raynor, president of Unite, the union that represents textile workers, ticked off a few of the more recent losses: 1,000 jobs lost in the last two years as mills closed in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.; another 1,000 in mill closings in Columbus, Ga.; 1,500 lost in the closing of a sweatshirt factory in Martinsville, Va.
These workers are mostly black men and women who were earning $11 an hour plus benefits in small towns where other jobs, if there are any, do not pay as well.
"This is not like the cyclical downturns in the old days, when you got furloughed for a few weeks and then recalled," said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "These jobs are gone, and that represents a potentially significant slide in living standards."
Black employment in manufacturing, once concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast, is now spread across every state as companies have migrated to lower-wage towns and cities. With an increasing number of these companies migrating again, this time overseas in search of yet lower labor costs, the job loss in manufacturing has intensified. Every state has lost manufacturing jobs over the last three years, according to a study by the National Association of Manufacturers.
In 2000, there were 2 million black Americans working in factory jobs, or 10.1 percent of the nation's total of 20 million manufacturing workers. Blacks were represented in the overall work force in roughly the same proportion. Then came the recession that began in March 2001; since then, 300,000 factory jobs held by blacks, or 15 percent, have disappeared. White workers lost many factory jobs, too — 1.7 million in all. But because they were much more numerous to begin with, proportionally the damage was less, just 10 percent.
These job losses figure significantly in the rise in the unemployment rate among blacks 20 years of age or older. It has gone up 3.5 percentage points since the onset of the recession, while the rate among whites has risen less than half as much, 1.7 percentage points.
Most damaging, blacks' share of the remaining manufacturing jobs has slipped to 9.6 percent. "Half a percentage point may not sound like much," Mr. Bernstein said, "but to lose that much in such an important sector over a relatively short period, that is going to be hard to recover."
Hispanic workers, in contrast, have fared better over the last 28 months, even expanding their share of manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their overall unemployment rate rose 2.2 percentage points, in line with the increase for the nation as a whole. The national unemployment rate now stands at 6.4 percent.
While blacks have been big losers in the 28 months of recession and weak recovery, they made big gains in the tight labor markets of the late 1990's. Their unemployment rate, which had soared as high as 18 percent in the aftermath of the severe 1981-82 recession and was nearly 13 percent in the early 1990's, fell to less than 7 percent, on average, in 1999 and 2000 — close to the overall rate of less than 5 percent. Never since the Labor Department began to track unemployment by race in 1972 had black unemployment been so low for a sustained period. Now it is 10.5 percent for blacks 20 years of age or older.
The shift in fortunes is evident in a poll that David Bositis, a political scientist at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, conducts periodically among blacks, asking 850 people representing a cross section of the black population whether they consider themselves financially better off than a year before, worse off, or the same. In October 2000, the responses were quite positive: 45 percent better off, 10 percent worse off, 44 percent the same. But by October 2002, only 18.9 percent said they were better off than a year earlier, while 36.7 percent considered themselves worse off and 42.6 percent said their circumstances had not changed. "That is an enormous shift," Mr. Bositis said.
For all the setbacks, black Americans have not diminished their presence in the labor force. During the late 1990's, the percentage of black Americans who were in the labor force — that is, either held jobs or were actively looking for them and therefore counted as unemployed — rose by two percentage points to more than 68 percent, the highest level on record. Significantly, in the subsequent downturn that high participation rate has held.
That means that the number of black people looking for jobs is higher now than in previous eras — a statistic that some analyst see as a reason for optimism. "People are coming out of a favorable labor market," said William Spriggs, executive director of the National League for Opportunity and Equality. "They are still optimistic, and they are more skilled, which means they are more willing to continue to look for work."
Others see suffering in the same data. Not since the Depression has the nation's work force contracted for so many months after a recession began. "Reluctance may be part of the reason blacks are not leaving the labor force," Mr. Bernstein said, acknowledging Mr. Spriggs's point. "But you leave a lousy labor market because you can afford to do so, and in a jobless recovery that has persisted for so long, many blacks don't have the savings to make a go of it without a paycheck."