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Black Unemployment Grows, Even As Economy Adds Jobs

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While some have celebrated the 227,000 jobs created by the U.S. economy in February, that good fortune was not spread equally across all groups. Both Black and Latino workers saw their unemployment rates climb, reversing course from significant but difficult-to-explain decreases earlier this year.

So far 2012 has consistently produced an average of more than 200,000 jobs each month. And while the broader economy remains vulnerable to shocks from the European debt crisis and rising gas prices, it too has shown signs of momentum.

In January, black and Latino workers appeared to benefit from the economy's gains. Black joblessness fell to 13.6 percent from 15.8 percent in December. It was a change so sharp that it left many economists surprised and perplexed, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based economic think tank.

Yet in February, black unemployment -- those actively seeking work but unable to find it -- rose to 14.1 percent from 13.6 percent in January. Latino workers also saw their jobless rate climb slightly to 10.7 percent in February from 10.5 percent the month before.

"What's unusual is that last month's numbers were a surprisingly large dip that we haven't had any explanation for," Algernon Austin, a sociologist who studies race and the economy at the Economic Policy Institute, told HuffPost BlackVoices. "So I think that was probably just statistical noise."

(For a look at how unemployment stats are compiled -- and the trouble that comes with tallying those numbers for African Americans -- check out this primer at ColorLines.)

One problem with unemployment numbers is that they only indicate the proportion of people looking for work. Austin pointed to another measure called employment-to-population ratio -- the number of employed people in a population measured against the total number of people in that population -- and said that there has been some good news for black teenagers.

"For teens, it's a really important measure to look at it, because they often have an adult who can help take care of them," he explained. "So when the labor market isn't friendly, they often drop out of the labor force [and aren't counted in the unemployment numbers]."

After having stagnated at about 15 percent for months, the employment-to-population for black teens jumped to 17 percent in February.

Overall Black and Latino unemployment are, however, expected to remain elevated throughout the year. In all 50 states the black unemployment rate remains higher than the national overall level of unemployment, according to an analysis released last month by the EPI. In the 25 states where African Americans are experiencing unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher, the expectation is they will continue to do so through the end of next year. The same will likely hold true in the 14 states where the Latino unemployment rate sits at 10 percent or more, the analysis found.

Most Americans think of the monthly unemployment numbers as an elegantly clear and definitive statement about the economy, but unemployment data actually has more of a sausage-like quality, said Bill Rodgers, a Rutgers University economist who studies inequality. It's better to consider unemployment trends over 12-month periods, he added.

Even here, the black employment outlook is mixed. Black men appear to have gained jobs since February 2011 in manufacturing, construction and the service sector. And while government employment held steady this month, deep staff cuts in state and local government have hit black women particularly hard. Indeed, government agencies, a sector that has slashed about 500,000 jobs since February 2010, employed just over one-quarter of black women before the recession began. That has caused the number of black women with jobs to fall, although that number held steady in February, Rodgers said.

This post has been updated to include more information about jobless trends among black and Latino workers.

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