Black Communities Struggle With Mass Joblessness
Friday morning Robert Drain got up, got dressed, turned on his computer, and then flipped on the television, tuning it to CNN. The news was awful: Once again, the unemployment rate was climbing.
For Drain, 62, the news about the labor market carried special resonance: looking for a job has become his job. Moreover, he lives in a predominantly African American community in Nashville known as Bordeaux. Though much of the United States continues to suffer the strains of a jobless rate that reached 9.2 percent in June, African Americans have long confronted unemployment reaching to near-Depression levels -- 16.2 percent last month.
Bordeaux has long been the sort of community that African Americans have associated with middle class comforts, a neighborhood in which, in previous generations, black business owners, doctors and academics purchased and built homes -- long before anyone ever heard the term sub-prime mortgage. But today in Bordeaux, while there are a number of comfortable retirees, there are also a lot of people just like Drain: people looking for work.
In this community, Friday's disappointing jobs report appeared to change little if anything, merely affirming an unmistakeable reality: a chronic shortage of jobs.
"My friends, my neighbors, I'd say most of us are unemployed, deeply under-employed or expecting to be fired," Drain said, "and by that I do mean laid off, any day. That's our reality."
In Bordeaux, plenty of streets have mid-sized cars parked in driveways. Meticulously trimmed yards convey the impression that much is ordinary. Still, it's not hard to spot a roadside sign planted by someone who claims their business can stop a pending foreclosure. The community also makes up the majority of a city council district where 394 households have requested $156,416 in utility assistance. That's more than any other area of the city, according to local government data. All but one of the programs is reserved for people who have experienced an involuntary change in income, such as a job loss.
Local officials are worried because the federal community services block grant program - which funds the utility, mortgage and rental assistance programs - is facing a 50 percent cut, depending on the outcome of budget talks.
Back in Bordeaux, the lines to use public computers at the community library are long. There are a lot of people using them to look for jobs. Not too far away, at the C.E. McGruder Community Resource Center, demand for job search services is also intense. And, since the recession began, the number of men applying for food stamp benefits has come to nearly match the number of women.
"Traditionally, we've had a lot of single moms who come in looking for that sort of help," said Tracye Henderson, director of the center.
While Henderson was out running errands on Friday, she was approached by a man. The man, in his 40s, had brought a relative into the center a year or so ago. Now, he was wondering if the community center still helped people apply for food stamps. He too had just lost his job.
While signs of struggle aren't hard to find in and around Bordeaux, many of the businesses that operated in a nearby historically black business district before the recession are still there, said Sharon Hurt, executive director of the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership.
Today on Jefferson, most of the businesses are hanging on because they are accustomed to operating on shoe-string budgets or they are run by long-time business people who know how to handle an economic rough patch, Hurt said.
Smith Funeral Home is still there, and the owner is leasing several of his nearby properties to other businesses. Nationwide Insurance has a storefront along with Dollar General, and at least two local attorney groups. The Garden Brunch Cafe has found its footing by opening its doors to weekend customers and staying closed much of the week.
It isn't easy for the businesses to thrive because too many of the homes nearby are vacant, Hurt said. However, Hurt's organization has been able to place about 200 people in jobs, helping to build the city's new and massive convention center. And, it has received federal funding that will allow the organization to rehab and sell about 40 area homes. The jobs and the homes should together do a lot for the community, she said.
In 2008, the day after Obama was elected president, a parade formed on Jefferson Street. There is a trio of historically-black colleges located there. But it wasn't just college students who came to Jefferson Street to celebrate the election of the nation's first black president. There was music, there were convertible convoys, there were people with noisemakers and a lot to say about what was possible. There were people talking about their hopes for their children's futures.
"Yes, I do remain optimistic, in spite of it all because I know what is possible and because I believe in God," Hurt said. "I know that miracles can happen and I know how many people are committed to making this community work."
Hurt isn't alone. A Pew Center poll released in late June found that 15 percent of African Americans are expecting their financial situation to improve "a lot" over the next year, while just 5 percent of white Americans said the same. Another 48 percent of white Americans said their economic situation would improve "some," compared to 54 percent of blacks.
On Friday, Drain was in Hurt's office hoping she might know someone who works for a company where he has just applied for a job. Hurt didn't have an inside connection.
Before the downturn, Drain worked as a teacher, then ran a thriving construction business and even helped a friend flip a series of homes. He can remember when the real estate agents attached to those flips used to stop by and harass him about wrapping up construction. The agents were always sure that they were on the verge of making a sale.
By the spring of 2008, Drain's bank told him it could no longer lend him most of the costs associated with his next project. This time, the bank said it could only give him 40 percent of the cost of the project, enough to get started but not finish. A few months later, when Drain drove by one of his earlier flips and saw that it was still on the market, he knew he was in trouble.
After a year of looking for work and spending some time living in an Atlanta homeless shelter, Drain found a job managing a construction crew in Nashville, doing mostly stimulus-funded work. Drain and his crew worked retrofitting homes with energy saving widows, heating and cooling systems and rehabbing the houses of low-income owners who could not afford critical repairs.
When Drain worked in other sections of Nashville, he heard terrible stories from homeowners who lost jobs. But in North Nashville, closer to home, Drain heard story after story about people who lost jobs and then developed serious health problems.
"I think when you are already living with high blood pressure or have been told you are darn near diabetic, being out of a job can just put you over the top," Drain said. "Stress isn't any body's friend."
Then, in March, Drain's own layoff notice came.