CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the decade leading up to the Great Recession, Wanda Nolan grew accustomed to steady progress.
From an entry-level job as a fill-in bank teller, she forged a career as a commercial banking assistant, earning enough to become a homeowner. She finished college and then got an MBA. Even after the recession unfolded in late 2007, her degrees and her familiarity with the business world lent her a sense of immunity to the forces ravaging much of the American economy. Nolan was an exemplar of the African American middle class and the increasingly professional ranks of the so-called New South.
But in September 2008, everything changed.
A bank human resources officer called her into a private conference room. “All I heard was, ‘Your position has been eliminated,’” says Nolan, 37, who, despite being one of the more than 13 million officially unemployed Americans, still spends most days in her self-styled banker’s uniform of pearls and pants and practical flats. “My mind started racing.”
More than two years later, Nolan is still looking for a job and feeling increasingly anxious about a future that once felt assured. Her life has devolved from a model of middle class African American upward mobility into an example of a disturbing trend: She is among the 15.5 percent of African Americans out of work and still looking for a job.
For economists, that number may sound awful, but it’s not surprising. The nation’s overall unemployment rate sits at 8.8 percent and the rate among white Americans is at 7.9 percent. For a variety of reasons -- ranging from levels of education and continuing discrimination to the relatively young age of black workers -- black unemployment tends to run twice the rate for whites. Yet since the Great Recession, joblessness has remained so critically elevated among African Americans that it is challenging longstanding ideas about what it takes to find work in the modern-day economy.
Millions of people like Nolan, who have precisely followed the oft-dictated recipe for economic success -- work hard, get an education, seek advancement -- are slipping backward. Even as they apply for jobs and accept the prospect of a future with less job security and lower pay, they remain stalled in unemployment.
Trading down has become a painful truth for much of working America, but this truth becomes particularly stark when seen through the prism of race. Only 12 percent of all Americans are black, but working-age black Americans comprise nearly 21 percent of the nation’s unemployed, according to federal data. The growing contrast between prospects for white and black job-seekers challenges a cherished American notion: the availability of opportunity and upward mobility for all.
“Over the course of the recession, the unemployment disparity between college educated blacks and whites actually widened,” says economist Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity, and Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “If black workers who are the most prepared to compete and work in the new economy can’t find jobs, that’s something that we as a country have to take seriously.”
At the request of The Huffington Post, the Economic Policy Institute analyzed several surveys conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to measure black unemployment both before and after the recession. The result: a veritable epidemic of joblessness that has undone decades of economic progress for millions of African Americans.
In Birmingham, Ala., the unemployment rate among African Americans was 5.3 percent in 2006, the year before the recession began. Last year it was 14.5 percent, according to the EPI analysis. In Miami, the rate went from 6.7 percent in 2006 to 17.2 percent last year. In the Los Angeles area, the black unemployment rate climbed from 8.6 percent in 2006 to 19.3 percent last year.
Meanwhile, in metropolitan areas where African American unemployment was already a major problem, levels now speak to a running depression. In Detroit, black unemployment last year reached 25.7 percent, more than four times the 6 percent mark seen in 2000 at the end of a technology-driven national economic boom. During the same decade, black unemployment in Las Vegas swelled from 8.2 percent to 20.1 percent, according to the EPI analysis.
And in Charlotte, the percentage of black job-seekers expanded from 4.9 percent to 19.2 percent over the last decade.
“That’s had a devastating effect on Charlotte and the people who live here,” says Mayor Anthony Foxx, the city’s second black mayor, who became the youngest mayor in Charlotte history at age 38. “We are working very hard to do all that we can to attract companies that might replace those jobs. But certainly the job needs remain real and, in some communities, intense.”
EVEN THE NEW SOUTH DECLINES
Charlotte, a city of about 750,000 people,was supposed to be near-impervious to national economic problems, at least according to the guiding narrative in the area.
Communities across the South lost thousands of manufacturing and textile jobs during the 1990s and the early part of the last decade, dealing the region a devastating economic blow. For generations, a job on a textile-mill floor or inside a furniture factory had been a reliable way for people with no more than a high school diploma to support their families. As workers watched their jobs sent off to low-wage factories in Asia and Latin America, many struggled to find new places to work or had to settle for smaller paychecks in new industries.
But something different happened in Charlotte. Though jobs making cotton T-shirts and living-room sets became harder to find, many were replaced by white-collar positions in financial services. Tea is still served sweet in most of the city's restaurants, in keeping with southern tradition, but skyscrapers punctuating the downtown landscape are more likely to carry corporate names such as Bank of America than those of Civil War generals.
And these sorts of businesses have opened fresh pathways for success to black and white residents alike, making Charlotte an aspirational model for the African American middle class. Despite the history of slavery, legal segregation and structural inequality, racial divisions seemed as if they were being eclipsed by economic progress.
“For many of the major corporations here, the demand for labor was so great that it overrode just about any inclination toward discrimination, if it was there at all,” says John Connaughton, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “The financial industry had an incredibly diverse workforce. People were moving here from all over the country. Charlotte was and is that kind of place.”
In 2008, Forbes magazine included Charlotte among its list of “10 recession-proof cities.” That same year, Black Enterprise Magazine ranked Charlotte fourth on its list of the 10 best cities for African Americans. The city’s black median household income compared well to its overall median household income, black unemployment was relatively low and the number of black college graduates and homeowners was fairly high.
Newer neighborhoods in Charlotte seem roughly as racially integrated as personal finances allow. The City Council is exactly half white and half black.
Nationally, the years before the Great Recession were characterized by markedly weak job growth. But fresh paychecks proliferated in Charlotte, one of only five major metropolitan areas to see a net jobs increase between 2000 and 2009, according to a report produced last year by the Urban Institute.
Charlotte saw some 300,000 net jobs eliminated during the recession, however -- Wanda Nolan’s among them.
ENDING THE ASCENT
Serious-minded and intense, Nolan grew up in Charlotte, the youngest of three children. Her father is a veteran and a retired postal worker. Her mother worked for a day care provider. Both considered themselves lucky because they earned enough to finance a stable and mostly pleasant life.
Three years before Nolan was born, her parents bought a three-bedroom ranch-style home in southwest Charlotte, an area developed in the 1950s. They had money for the basics and money to send Nolan to dance lessons. They were able to afford occasional car trips to North Carolina’s Eastern Shore. When she turned 16, they bought her a car -- “a little Mazda GLC,” she recalls.
After high school, Nolan worked at a day care provider and drove a bus. She took some courses at Central Piedmont Community College, guided loosely by the notion that a degree would open the door to better jobs, but she did not graduate. Money and ambition meant less to her than the pursuit of “a simple happy life.”
She fell into a relationship, married, but soon separated after her husband struck her during an argument, she says.
“It only had to happen once,” Nolan says.
Her husband had been the breadwinner, making divorce an event with serious financial ramifications. Before the couple’s relationship was completely over, Nolan became pregnant, intensifying that pressure. Her mother gave her money to rent her own apartment.
She was only 23, but she suddenly had adult responsibilities. A single mother with her own bills to pay, she found herself in need of a solid career. She took a job at a Red Cross blood bank where she earned about $17,000 a year and then moved on to a job at Aetna US Healthcare, where her earnings climbed to about $25,000. She put money aside and, two years later, had enough to buy herself a $69,000 three-bedroom house in her parent’s neighborhood.
When she thinks of those years now, she says, a song comes to mind: “Independent Women,” the 2000 hit from the girl group Destiny’s Child. The lyrics pose a question: “Tell me how you feel about this … The house I live in / I've bought it / The car I'm driving / I've bought it / I depend on me.”
“I really felt like that was me,” Nolan says now. “I thought, ‘you know, I wasn’t raised in an apartment. I don’t want this for my daughter. I’ve got to put some things together,’ and I did.”
Two years later, in 2000, Nolan got herself a job as a fill-in teller at First Citizens Bank, working in different branches scattered across the Charlotte region. The job only paid $25,500. But, Nolan saw what she thought was the opportunity to advance.
She impressed a manager and the bank transferred her permanently to a commercial banking unit downtown. Still, she had a nagging feeling that working hard would not be enough. Her father had been the valedictorian of his high school class and talked a lot about the importance of school. Without a college degree, her opportunities seemed limited -- and she wanted her father to be proud.
In 2002, she enrolled in college. Nolan took classes at night and continued working at the bank full-time during the day. She sent her daughter to day care or to stay with her parents.
She began seeing another man and eventually had a second daughter with him. But the relationship didn’t last. Having another child only reinforced the imperative to advance her career.
“I realized that I needed to be an example to my children,” she says. “I needed to be in a better position to make it on my own. That’s when I got really serious about school.”
She pushed herself through college through a combination of local classes and online course offerings, completing her bachelor’s degree in 2006. Two years later, Nolan finished an M.B.A., emerging with $84,000 in student loan debt, she says, but a powerful sense that she had armed herself for success.
But that same summer, First Citizens began suffering from the effects of the economic downturn. Euphemisms like “rightsizing” came up in meetings and filled office conversation. As news of layoffs began to spread around the bank, so did stress. So many people were developing or managing stress-related illnesses that Nolan’s work area became known as “the sick floor.”
“Everyone was speculating about which departments would stay and which were going to go,” she says.
When First Citizens began laying off employees that fall, Nolan was earning about $40,000 a year. That was about $12,000 less than Charlotte’s median household earnings at the time, but it was enough to manage and still save a tiny fraction for emergencies and retirement. She was owed nearly $35,000 in unpaid child support, she says, but she was able to provide for her family and could lean on a $15,000 home equity credit line as needed.
Positive by nature, Nolan told herself she would endure -- even after a round of layoffs claimed her job.
A few minutes after she got the news in the conference room, Nolan sat in the parking lot and fished though her purse. She was looking for the piece of paper where she’d written down contact information for a woman at a South Carolina collections company. They were hiring.
“At that point, I was pretty optimistic, very optimistic even,” says Nolan.
So optimistic that when she was offered the job with the collections agency, she turned it down because it entailed a commute of nearly an hour and paid $15,000 less than her previous job.
Some 32 months and countless rejections later, Nolan knows some people will think her decision was a mistake.
“But I’m not sure.” she says. “I am a single mother who would be an hour away from her kids if they get sick during the day, making less money and driving a longer distance to work putting more wear and tear on my car.”
In the beginning, Nolan set rigid job search goals for herself: She had to pursue a minimum of 10 jobs per day.
Yet despite applying for hundreds of positions, she has received only a few callbacks and been granted a mere handful of interviews, she says.
She has been hired twice, but neither job lasted. In late 2008, she worked as an office manager at an airport concessions company after a friend referred her. But three months later, as business declined, she was laid off again. She soon landed another position as assistant director of sales at a telecommunications company. About 11 months later, in April 2010, a dip in business meant yet another layoff.
“That was rough for me, very rough,” Nolan says. “I am a person who keeps a job, who stays with my job. I don’t jump from place to place.”
She set up automatic email alerts that bring notice of new banking and telecommunications jobs to her email account. At night, while her daughters do their homework at the kitchen table, she sits with them, stares into her laptop and readies her applications.
“I hope they don’t know this, but I’m usually at it well after they go to bed,” Nolan says. “There are so many people looking for jobs. So, I stay up. I apply. I worry. Then I do it all over again.”
Last year, she decided to enroll in a job-training program at the Urban League of the Central Carolinas. She heard about the program on a local R&B radio station. The ad mentioned green job training and the industry’s potential to expand in the future.
The class had 18 students. She was one of four with a graduate degree, she says.
Today, she does not call herself optimistic.
“Now, I would have to say I’m not,” she says. “This has been the biggest challenge of my life.”
For most policymakers, the answer to persistently high African American unemployment has been to address overall unemployment: stimulate the economy to create demand and new jobs.
But some experts say that prescription effectively exacerbates the gap between black and white unemployment by failing to address the particularly potent factors at play in some segments of the African American community.
“When you face a large group of people, some of whom are seriously hurt and some of whom are critically injured, you can’t apply the same medicine to the injured and the critically ill and expect a good outcome,” says Patrick Graham, president and CEO of the Urban League of the Central Carolinas.
The Urban League advocates for initiatives aimed at generating jobs in particularly hard hit communities. Last year, Urban League president Marc Morial, together with NAACP President Ben Jealous and activist Al Sharpton, met with President Barack Obama to press for a new jobs program focused on communities where unemployment is highest.
“We were not and are not saying, ‘Give black people jobs,’” says Morial. “We are saying, ‘Focus on the geographic areas where unemployment is the worst if you want to solve this problem.’”
According to Morial, Obama told the group that the administration planned to stick with its universal job-creation strategy.
The administration maintains that it has mounted a considerable response to the unemployment crisis afflicting the African American community.
"I think we are quite sympathetic to the view that African Americans and other groups have been quite hard hit by the recession and to the view that we should help them," says Austan Goolsbee, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and the chief economist for the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
The administration's support for small-business tax breaks helped to drive an increase in the number of black-owned businesses during the recession, Goolsbee says. The administration also intensified efforts to ensure that a broad collection of small businesses -- including those owned by ethnic minorities and women -- are aware of federal contact work opportunities. This work can grow businesses and create jobs, he says.
Stimulus-funded construction projects created jobs that put many workers back on job sites, Goolsbee says. But few African Americans work in the construction industry. Goolsbee says stimulus-funded construction projects may have done more to reduce the Latino unemployment rate, which remains elevated at 11.3 percent.
The Obama administration’s primary effort to create jobs, an $800 billion package of stimulus spending measures, has had negligible effect on African American businesses, according to a recent study by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.
Black, Latino and Asian-owned businesses collectively represent about 21 percent of all the nation’s companies. But these companies have collectively received just under 10 percent of some $34.6 billion allocated by February via direct federal stimulus contracts, according to the same study. White-owned companies represent about 83 percent of the nation’s businesses and won direct contracts for nearly 83 percent of the projects funded with stimulus dollars, the study found.
There are also new problems on the horizon. Nearly a quarter of the nation's employed black laborers work for government agencies. Stimulus funding that went to states during the recession helped to fill or at least shrink budget deficits and delayed many public sector payroll concerns. But, with that money drying up, state and local governments are now shedding jobs.
Some experts see a troublesome paradox at work: Race-neutral policies will not close the unemployment gap, yet a policy that overtly attempts to address black joblessness seems politically radioactive, and trips pervasive notions about race that undermine productive discussion. But, without that discussion and new policy, the black unemployment rate seems likely to stay above 10 percent until 2014, says Austin, the economist behind the Economic Policy Institute analysis.
“We don’t think of unemployment in structural [socioeconomic] terms, what causes unemployment or who might be affected,” says Dorian Warren, a political scientist at Columbia University, who studies race, labor and the politics of inequality. ”Add to that the notion that we are a ‘color-blind’ society now. So, whatever happens or does not happen for black people is their own fault. There is also just this pervasive notion that black people are lazy and don’t want to work. These ideas have real traction and really shape public opinion.”
Many Americans -- particularly white Americans -- dismiss joblessness as a condition indicating lack of commitment, or even moral depravity among those out of work, making the issue of African American unemployment particularly sensitive, Warren says. For African American leaders -- not least, President Obama -- embracing the cause of black employment risks making them seem like parochial figures, offering up past injustices as excuses for current trouble.
A NEW REALITY
The neighborhood where Nolan and her parents live looks like it’s still occupied by comfortable people. Ornamental wells, birdbaths and garden benches nearly outnumber the family-sized Toyotas, Fords and Hyundais parked at the curb. But the foreclosure crisis has hit the mostly black and Latino moderate-income community hard.
At the end of March, all of the homes for sale in Nolan’s neighborhood involved pre-foreclosure auctions or bank-owned foreclosure sales.
Nolan is aggressively working to keep her own home from that fate. She recently qualified for a federally-funded foreclosure prevention program that will cover her mortgage payments for a year while she job hunts or gets more training. She used her tax return to pay off her car. Eliminating those bills is a relief.
“That’s almost $1,000 every month that I won’t have to come up with right now,” Nolan says. “That is huge.”
But Nolan’s $341-per-week unemployment benefits may expire at the end of April if an extension is not approved. Her student loan deferment is set to end in June. Her health insurance ran out in 2009 and she can no longer afford to pay for needed medications out of pocket.
Her health plan today amounts to a southern version of Zen, she says: breathe deeply, pray often.
Looking for work defines her life. That, and family, the one area in which unemployment seems to have delivered benefits. Most mornings, Nolan is up and out of the house by 6:30. She drops off the girls at their schools. Some mornings, she does something she’s never had the time to do before: volunteer at her daughters’ schools.
“That may be the one good thing that has happened,” she says. “I’m able to spend a lot more time with my kids.”
Since she’s been unemployed, Nolan has seen her youngest daughter, who attends what Nolan calls a predominantly white elementary school, do something she finds shocking: At only age 8, Nolan’s daughter approaches other kids and arranges her own play dates. That’s just what kids do, Nolan’s daughter tells her.
To Nolan, who must find the strength to put aside creeping self-doubt on the job trail, the confidence her daughter is displaying is an inspiration.
“At its core, that’s networking,” Nolan says. “She’s saying ‘Hey, we have an interest in common, please take some of your free time and spend it with me. We can do it on your turf or mine.’ If there is anything that I think may be holding black people back, any reason that so many of us can’t find jobs, it may be that. We just aren’t as accustomed or familiar with the art of building relationships that can become business opportunities. Some of us may not know anyone who can help us. I don’t think many white people are in that situation.”
There are plenty of studies that reinforce the importance of networks and network building in crafting and sustaining a career. But, there is also ample evidence that race alone can shape the job search experience. A 2006 Princeton University study found that white men with criminal records received callbacks and job offers about twice as often as black men without them -- even when the men had similar resumes and qualifications.
Most mornings, Nolan heads to a friend’s house to put in a few hours of what she calls “sweat equity” as a receptionist and all-purpose staff member at a start-up telecommunications company. She is not paid, but is hoping that if the business gets off the ground, she will be the first hire.
When the phone rings on a recent morning, Nolan answers.
“How may I help you today,” she says, headset on. “What we need is that one big call.”
When the company owner, who she met while working for the telecommunications company last year, told her he needed help with his books, Nolan found a nighttime QuickBooks software course and got him to pay for it. She figures that mastering basic accounting software might appeal to potential employers.
“I’m hoping that if I plant a seed now, it will grow,” she says. “Of course, it would be great if that seed grew really quickly.”
It’s been so long since Nolan worked the kind of steady and demanding job she likes, that she has begun trying to create a challenging environment for herself. On a recent Thursday evening, Nolan oversees a meeting of her church’s volunteer marketing staff. At six-foot-two, she towers over many of the other women in the room. She is in charge.
“Ladies, based on an average of the last four week’s church attendance, we’re printing 458 programs as we speak,” Nolan says at the start of the meeting. “You’re going to notice the new format. We expect to use 7 to 10 percent less paper this year. We’re going green.”
She lays out her planes to publicize an upcoming weekend food and clothing giveaway at the church. Later, she seeks a volunteer to gather data on the number of people served.
“I like to stay busy,” Nolan says. “And everything I do, I try to do it well.”
The parts of her life that still feel structured, positive, even controlled -- these are the parts that keep her going.
“I’m not going to say that there aren’t moments when it has been difficult,” she says.
She has drained her savings and her retirement account, once stocked collectively with about $8,000. She wishes she had saved more. She and her daughters live off about $200 a month in food stamps along with unemployment benefits -- a long way from the life of the independent women Destiny’s Child sang about.
This is not the first time that Nolan has relied upon public assistance. In the late 1990s, newly divorced and with a newborn to care for, she filed for food stamps and welfare payments. But the moment that her pay increased, she left the welfare rolls -- and the unwanted stigma. In her world, welfare seemed like a program for those she calls “the ghetto fabulous,” people who game the system.
“I remember how happy I was the day I was able to say, ‘Thank you, but I don’t need this help anymore,’” she says. “The woman I talked to was like, ‘Well, why don’t you at least keep the WIC (Women Infants and Children Program) vouchers for milk and juice.’ But I told her I was ready to do it all on my own and I did. I really did, until all this happened.”
Her youngest daughter has asthma and requires medication, so Nolan enrolled both her children in Medicaid. She also signed up both girls for a free school lunch program. Relying on public aid does not sit well, but she sees no other options.
“Any time I’m having issues with my pride, my children help to ground me,” she says. “Do my children need health insurance? Yes. Do my children need to eat? Yes, they do. So, I have to do what is necessary to provide. But that’s not what I want for my family, not it at all.”
On a recent afternoon, Nolan visits a coffee shop near her home. A white man at a nearby table sits hunched over a cup of coffee and newspaper when his cell phone rings. He apparently is also looking for work. A contractor is looking for someone with commercial building experience to finish out some concrete work. The man’s back straightens. He poured his first driveway when he was 17 years old, he tells the potential employer on the other end of the phone.
Nolan hears this and imagines her own phone ringing, her own life changing, all this struggle finally yielding reward.
“I’m keeping faith in that for my daughters,” she says. “They need to know that hard work and education matter.”