Women and People of Color Down for the Count in Jobless Recovery

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A close look at the unemployment figures shows that while white males are taking it on the chin in this recession, women and people of color are down for the count.

Although, in this recession, unemployment is rising faster for whites than for African Americans, the fact is that the jobless rate for minorities is still significantly higher than that of whites and has been for a long time. And with this recession looking to be long and deep, these higher rates of unemployment could have dramatic consequences for economic security, homeownership and child poverty rates, among other things.

Testifying last month before a U.S. House committee, Algernon Austin, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), pointed out that in this recession, America's racial and ethnic minorities are hurting more than the average worker.

For example, in September 2009, the white unemployment rate reached a high of 9 percent. However, the African American unemployment rate was more than 70 percent higher--15.4 percent.

For the 11 months prior to the start of the recession in December 2007, black workers' unemployment rate averaged 8.2 percent. It was not until April of this year that the white jobless rate reached 8 percent.

Even in "good" economic times, minority communities suffer from rates of unemployment that are often double those of white workers.

At the same time, Hispanic Americans have experienced the greatest percentage increase in their unemployment rate. The Hispanic unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in December 2007. It more than doubled to reach 12.7 percent in September of this year.

When you factor in workers who are not counted in the official unemployment figures because they are too discouraged to look for work, the numbers go even higher--reaching 20.9 percent for African American males, 14.7 percent for Hispanic males and 11.8 percent for white males in 2007, according to Austin's analysis.

Add in the underemployment rate of workers who would like to work full-time but only have part-time work and the picture gets even bleaker. Nearly one in four Hispanics (23.8 percent) and African Americans (23.4 percent) are unemployed or underemployed.

The prospects for young workers of color are even worse. Just 10 years ago, 60 percent of 16-24-year-olds had a job. Today, just 48 percent do, the lowest rate of young worker employment since World War II. Young workers are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as the overall population--18 percent, compared with the overall unemployment rate of 9.8 percent. The jobless rate soars to 27.3 percent for young African American workers and 21.3 percent for young Hispanic workers.

For women, who actually have a lower jobless rate than men, the official numbers don't tell the full story. Working women also have been hurt by manufacturing job loss during this recession. The impact is often worse for women because many are single parents.

A new report by the public policy research group Demos shows when women lose manufacturing jobs, they rarely manage to get back into jobs with similar pay or benefits.

One reason women workers are so adversely affected by manufacturing job loss is that they are concentrated in industries that have been drastically affected by the surge in cheap imports over the past decade, such as textiles, apparel and leather. Women make up more than 50 percent of the total workforce in these industries. Faced with high levels of foreign competition, these jobs have had high levels of trade-related job displacement.

The authors estimate the industries with the highest percentage of women workers lost nearly 500,000 jobs between 1999 and 2008. And when women do get new jobs, they still are hurting because they get paid less. Women are still paid only 77 cents to every dollar paid to a man, and with the price of everyday necessities going up, women who support families are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.

Lisa Belkin, writing in the New York Times, says women also are concentrated in lower-paying industries, like health care and education, where there have been fewer layoffs, rather than in higher-paying realms, like finance, construction and manufacturing, which have contracted.

This economic crisis is a jobs crisis, and there can be no strong and sustainable recovery until employment begins to grow. The Obama administration's aggressive actions have clearly brought us "back from the brink" of what might have been a second Great Depression, but we will need a lot more sustained and expanded fiscal stimulus and direct job creation if we are to see a robust recovery.

The Obama administration and Congress should continue to extend unemployment benefits and bolster aid to budget-constrained states and cities. Further, the administration must speed public investment in education and training, repairing our nation's deteriorating infrastructure and building a greener economy.

Working Americans, male and female, of all races and ethnicities, also need the Employee Free Choice Act to ensure that when our economy rebounds women and people of color will be able to share in the recovery.