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In Black America, The Depression Rolls On

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UNEMPLOYMENT

The latest snapshot of the American job market, released by the Labor Department on Friday, confirms what most ordinary people already knew without need of a government report: Little is improving quickly or broadly enough to dislodge the anxiety that has taken up long-term residence in many communities.

The unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent in December, from 9.8 percent the month prior. But that had little to do with people actually finding work, and much to do with the jobless simply giving up and halting their searches, dropping out of the statistical pool known as the labor force.

A deeper dive past the headline numbers reveals a reality that ought to trigger national alarm but hasn't for the simple reason that it is already embedded in the country we have unfortunately become: the Divided States of America.

Among white people, the unemployment rate dropped in December to 8.5 percent -- hardly acceptable, but manageable were the government spending more to expand a fraying social safety net and generate jobs. For black Americans, the unemployment rate was 15.8 percent.

Professional economists will not pause for an instant at those figures. It is a truism that the black unemployment rate generally runs double the white one, and yet when did that become acceptable? How can there be so little discussion about a full-blown epidemic of joblessness in the African-American community, as if the commonplace incidence of despair -- and, more recently, reversed progress -- somehow amounts to old news?

"Can you imagine any other group at that level of unemployment and the media dismissing it as not important?" the Rev. Jesse Jackson asked during an interview this week.

He described deteriorating inner-city, predominantly-black communities in Chicago and Detroit. In New York, a recent study found that more than one-third of African-American men aged 16 to 24 were unemployed between early 2009 and the middle of last year.

"These are the same areas that were targeted for foreclosure by the banks, through reverse redlining," Jackson said, referring to the way subprime lending operations preyed with particular dispatch on minority communities. "These are the same areas that have less access to transportation, which makes it nearly impossible to get to where the jobs are. You are structurally locked out of economic participation and growth."

The picture becomes more vivid still using a broader Labor Department measure known as underemployment, which counts jobless people along with those who are working part-time for lack of full-time work, or who have given up looking for work but are eager for jobs. Among African-Americans, the underemployment rate was running just under 25 percent late last year, according to an analysis of government data by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That compared to a rate of about 15 percent for white Americans.

Nearly 15 years have passed since the publication of "When Work Disappears," a masterful book by sociologist William Julius Wilson describing in compelling detail the impact on working class African-American neighborhoods suffering large job losses: in a word, disintegration. Little has changed since then except for an acceleration of the slide.

There is no magic bullet for urban strife in poor communities, but if you had to pick one thing that can fix a great deal in one shot, a paycheck is as good as it gets, as Wilson's book makes clear.

A job is a source of pride, a reason to get out of bed, an imperative to take care of one's health, and -- if the economy is functioning properly -- a justification to keep going and strive for better. A job is reason to steer clear of drugs and alcohol, and an alternative to the risk of earning money through crime. A job allows households to function, keeping families together, and proving children with the support they need.

When jobs disappear so, too, do these sources of social cohesion, these motives to avoid trouble, these reasons for navigating the commonplace difficulties of any human day. Anger builds, which can lead to violence. Economic necessity motivates people to look for creative ways to earn money, sometimes taking them outside the law.

Wilson convincingly argues that morally loaded, often-racist depictions of inner-city black poverty have tended to distract many Americans from the single greatest factor behind the troubles that have claimed once-vigorous communities -- the steady bleeding of decent paychecks.

When Wilson's book was published back in 1996, the black unemployment rate sat at just above 10 percent. By 2000, with the American economy in the midst of a historic boom, it had dropped to 7 percent. But by early last year -- following eight years of lean job creation and then two years of the worst recession in a half-century -- the black unemployment rate exceeded 16 percent, or 1 in 6.

Drill deeper into the Labor Department data, and the numbers get more disturbing still. Among black men between the ages of 25 and 29, the unemployment rate was just under 21 percent in December. And that actually constituted an improvement from the 25.7 percent it reached in the spring of 2009, during the worst of the Great Recession.

In short, over the last decade, most of black America has been effectively ensnared in an endless recession that became flat-out catastrophic when the rest of the county officially sunk into the downturn in the fall of 2007.

Even among black college graduates, the unemployment rate sat at just under 8 percent in December -- four times the rate in late 2006, back when the economy was still producing jobs. By contrast, the unemployment rate for white college graduates sat at 4.3 percent in December, roughly double the rate at the beginning of the recession.

It is difficult to absorb these numbers without coming to a simple conclusion: In black America, a veritable depression is still unfolding, tearing at communities that had previously seen substantial progress, turning first-time homeowners into foreclosure victims and transforming proud college graduates into bewildered jobless people, unclear why their hard work and education have failed to translate into the step up they were supposed to in the movie trailer version of the American dream.

And yet, the political system is busy with other things, such as how to blame union labor for local budget disasters -- caused by financial services companies that pay their executives seven- and eight-figure sums -- or how to cut the federal budget deficit by depriving people of health care.

In Washington, the leadership of both parties seems stuck in the mode of trying to manufacture the illusion of a recovery -- via photo ops at factories and pontificating about spending cuts -- while doing little or nothing to bring a real recovery about.

Meanwhile, whole swaths of the economy are falling away, going uncounted in the monthly Labor Department surveys and little-regarded by politicians.

In the calculus of American power, just as in the reports used by our economic experts to set policy, it's as if much of black America has simply ceased to exist.