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Overall Economic Picture Brightening, But Many Job Seekers Still In Economic Haze

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AP
AP

Economic data suggests the long-stagnant economy may finally be gaining momentum, but Americans aren't seeing a turnaround yet, according to a pair of newly released polls.

The economy -- and more specifically the nation's persistent jobs crisis -- remains the number one concern for most Americans, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released Friday. Nearly 60 percent of the those polled said the economy is in dire need of attention and repair.

For African Americans on the job hunt, good news is even harder to find. Black adults, including those with college degrees, are unemployed at a rate two times that of other workers, according to a Kaiser/Harvard Kennedy School/NPR poll released Friday.

"A lot of people across the board are feeling a lot of economic impacts," said Liz Hamel, Kaiser's associate director for public opinion and survey research. "But unemployment and its effects haven't hit Americans equally, or even left people with the same set of concerns. For blacks it's been very different."

Overall joblessness edged down to 8.6 percent in November from 9 percent in October, according to the Labor Department. But much of the drop came from those leaving the labor force, and the economy gained only 120,000 jobs.

Still, that report was seen as a positive sign by some economists. More positive news came Friday when the Labor Department reported that new requests for unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest level seen in three and a half years.

But the jobs gains haven't come evenly: The nation's black unemployment rate climbed slightly to 15.5 percent in November.

And among the 700 unemployed and underemployed people polled by Kaiser, there were significant signs of financial and emotional distress.

Nearly 60 percent reported drawing money out of their savings or retirement accounts to pay ordinary bills. A little over half of these same respondents said they had either sold personal belongings or borrowed money from family and friends in order to cover expenses, or had been contacted by a collection agency over bills.

A similar percentage said that being unemployed has caused health problems, such as significant weight loss or weight gain, sleeping difficulties or stress-related illnesses. One tenth reported having been prescribed medication for a mental health problem since they stopped working. And filling those prescriptions has likely been difficult, since more than half of the long-term unemployed -- defined as being out of work for over a year in the Kaiser report -- said they were uninsured.

Nearly half of the unemployed and underemployed polled have had trouble paying for housing, and about a third have moved in with relatives of friends to save money. A quarter of those polled have seen a utility disconnected because they could not pay the bill. Nearly 10 percent reported losing their home due to an eviction or foreclosure.

The poll also made clear that joblessness has disproportionately ravaged black America. Black Americans make up about 12 percent of the nation's population and about 10 percent of the nation's full-time workforce, but they represent 27 percent of the long-term unemployed, according to the poll.

That pattern predates the recession. But at points since the recession, black unemployment reached near Great Depression-level highs in some cities. And since the recovery officially began in June 2009, black unemployment has never dropped below 14 percent; the number of black women out of work has actually grown.

Since the recession, median black household wealth -- the savings and other assets that a family has to use or share -- has dropped to a 30 year low. Median white family wealth is now 20 times greater than that of median black households.

The Kaiser poll also revealed differences in the way that black and white workers seek out and think about help, as well as the way their view their employment prospects. And respondents notions didn't always match up with the facts.

In the Kaiser poll, both black and white individuals indicated that family and friends have proven a key source of assistance since their job loss. A full 66 percent of blacks have borrowed money from these sources, compared to 45 percent of whites. About 57 percent of blacks indicated that the federal government has been at least some help to them; only 38 percent of white respondents said the same, even though all unemployment benefits after 26 weeks come from the federal purse.

Black workers also reported far greater confidence that they would eventually be able to find a job with the pay and benefits they need to survive, according to the Kaiser poll. About a third of the white respondents polled said they felt this way, compared to slightly over half of the black respondents.

"Somehow, blacks have really remained hopeful," said Hamel. "At the same time, it's whites that appear to have really had their confidence shaken."

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