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Black Unemployment Rises Even As Overall Jobless Rate Drops

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Two weeks.

That was the longest stretch of time Michael Seals, 58, has ever looked for work. That was the longest stretch, until now.

Seals, an Atlanta native, has watched his hometown grow from charming city to thriving metropolis -- and the fortunes of many fellow African Americans grow with it. He describes himself as a man who is good with his hands, having spent nearly a decade as a supervisor at an area cabinet company. The firm specialized in outfitting kitchens and bathrooms in the high-rises that changed Atlanta's skyline, and in the subdivisions that transformed what had been the countryside into sprawling suburbia, in places as far away as North Carolina and Tennessee.

"By 2008, the housing market here, it just plain fell out," Seals said. "The owner came to me and said they had to cut back. That was the end of my job and the beginning of a very rude awakening."

Overall unemployment fell to a better-than-expected 8.8 percent in March as the economy added roughly 216,000 jobs, the Labor Department announced Friday. Those are the kind of figures that economists say indicate a strengthening recovery, though they caution that it's well below the rate of job growth the nation needs to see -- uninterrupted, for years -- if employment is ever to return to a level comparable to the years before the Great Recession.

Still, labor-market watchers and many ordinary Americans may be breathing shallow sighs of relief. But others, like Seals, cannot.

Black unemployment actually increased in March, from 15.3 to 15.5 percent. At the same time, 7.9 percent of white workers were jobless. Black would-be workers, particularly black men, haven't begun to experience the kind of slow, slight but real declines in unemployment that white workers are experiencing.

In fact, when overall unemployment peaked in October 2009 at 10.1 percent, prompting a national epidemic of hand-wringing, black unemployment sat almost unnoticed at 15.3 percent. And while the overall unemployment rate began to edge down, black unemployment continued to fluctuate until it peaked at 16.5 percent in March and April 2010.

"In all my working years, I've never seen anything like it," Seals said.

When the recession began in 2007, black and Latino workers lost their jobs at a faster clip, said Roderick Harrison, a Howard University sociologist and demographer who is also a fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Now, despite the recession's official end and incremental job gains for all types of workers, it's black and Latino workers who are having the hardest time finding work again. The industries that added jobs during the recession -- health care and educational services -- and those that have begun to do so now have historically employed more women then men. That's why the uptick in black unemployment in March was driven largely by black male unemployment, Harrison said.

Black workers are typically less educated than white workers. But before, during and after the recession, black college graduates have been far more likely than their white peers to be unemployed, Harrison said. And for more than a decade, the ability to get to a job in a car has become the key to work. Office jobs -- the kind this month's job report indicated are being created -- are by and large located in far-flung suburbs, not in the cities and inner-ring suburbs where most black people live, Harrison said.

"The jobs are being created in the sorts of places you can't get to without a car or without dedicating significant time and significant resources to the commute," Harrison said.

Even before the recession began, there are several key factors that made elevated black unemployment a virtual rule. In addition to the education disparity, black workers are, by and large, younger than white workers, said Gary Burtless, an economist at The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Younger age is, like lower education, associated with higher unemployment.

Another factor that's frequently overlooked, said Burtless, is the ample evidence that employers evaluate more harshly a job application bearing a name they believe to be African American. When workers with the same qualifications and even the same resume have been sent out on interviews to test this thesis, white applicants received callbacks and job offers far more frequently than black applicants, he said.

But the period since the recession ended hasn't been particularly good for either black or white workers, Burtless said. The overall share of adults who are actually working hasn't changed much since late 2009. "That's bad news for everybody," he said. "Unemployment may be rising among black workers, but employment is still virtually flat."

What Harrison and Burtless see in the data, Dorothy Chandler, the executive director of downtown Atlanta's Midtown Assistance Center, sees in the lives of the people her agency serves. Atlanta's population is more than 50 percent black, as are about 92 percent of the people the Midtown Assistance Center serves. By the end of last year, Atlanta also had one of the largest black/white unemployment disparities in the nation. In Atlanta, 15.7 percent of black adult workers were jobless, compared to just 7 percent of their white peers.

The Midtown Assistance Center was founded by 11 interfaith congregations seeking to fight homelessness by helping people looking for work or those who have just started a job cover their rent, utilities and basic needs for short periods of time.

"The assistance is meant to be temporary," Chambers said. "We've had to redefine 'temporary.'"

The agency is also seeing an increase in the number of people who have been out of work for more than a year forced into the sort of choices that make finding or keeping work hard.

"Many of our clients are struggling to cover the basics - rent, food and utilities. So, a lot of them have given up their cars. Just given them back," Chambers said. "But the loans that go with them don't go away. And the few jobs that are out there aren't easier to reach without a car. It gets harder and harder to find work, or get to work if you don't have a job or the funds a job can bring."

In fact, for those who have been looking for work for 27 weeks or more, finding work appears to have become a more difficult prospect. In March 2010, 42.8 percent of the unemployed had been out of work for at least 27 weeks. Now, nearly 45 percent have been.

The Great Recession has introduced more people to the possibility that how hard they look doesn't determine whether they'll find a job, Harrison said. But, he added, that doesn't appear to be a concept that has taken root with the employed general public.

"You always hope that in these teachable moments people will learn and the base lesson in labor economics: jobs don't appear because people want them. People get jobs because there is a need for labor," Harrison said. "The fact that we aren't as a nation having conversations about the fact that we may have reached a point where the economy, on its own, does not create enough work for the population tells me that the lesson is not being absorbed. Instead of talking about all kinds of policy, we're having conversations on which kinds and how many tax cuts will help the market create jobs."

There are probably few people who want a job as badly as Seals, the former cabinet company supervisor. This year, he interviewed for a variety of jobs -- including children's ride operator, ticket-taker and greeter -- at the Atlanta Zoo. He's also interviewed for security guard and plane-cleaning positions at the Atlanta airport. The interviews seemed to go well, Seals said. No offers followed.

Seals said he still believes in the power of prayer, a positive attitude, a good personality and a well crafted resume. But he's gone though his limited savings and finds himself fretting over $30 car repairs.

"It feels like if you sneeze too hard you are going to mess something up," he said. "I've just never had to live that way before."

A correction was made to this story at 10:55 am. Dorothy Chandler was misidentified.