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Navigating the Jobs Crisis: Race to the Unemployment Line

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As part of the Roosevelt Institute's 10-part series on the Jobs Crisis, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog from Nov. 12-25, I was asked to reflect on what can be done to get Americans working again. Here's my take.

As the economy continues its long road to recovery, we must be wary of the policies implemented along the trek. Race looms at the fork in the road and we must determine which way to turn to most effectively address these issues in a manner to protect people of all colors.

That said, the significant impact on the African-American and Latino communities must not be ignored. Among blacks, the jobless rate stands at 15 percent, while unemployment among Hispanics exceeds 12 percent. Comparatively, joblessness among white workers is below 9 percent. The gap between black and white unemployment rates "is an index of discrimination in our society" says William A Darity, professor of African and African-American Studies and Economics at Duke University, as reported in Congressional Quarterly. To focus attention on those communities hardest hit doesn't divert attention from the omnipresent problem, but reminds us that we must be strategic in our thinking to avoid the flagrant mistakes of the past.

As Congressional Quarterly reminds us, it is a fact that the jobless rate for black Americans has remained much higher than that of whites through good times and bad since at least the 1960s. As I stated in that article, we need specific programs directed toward communities of color and unfortunately we're not seeing that. President Obama is right to note that he must "get the economy as a whole moving to be able to help anybody," but that effort should not be mutually exclusive from assisting those communities disproportionately impacted.

Minorities make up a larger portion of the low-wage work force and tend to have less seniority than white workers, so they are often more likely to lose their jobs when the economy sours (Congressional Quarterly). Even college-educated African-Americans are consistently more likely to be unemployed than whites who have only a high school diploma. At the very least the federal government needs to track how communities of color are being impacted and identify ways to implement intervention policies differently. Otherwise, when the economy recovers, African-Americans and Latinos will still find themselves at the same unequal playing field from where they started, or worse, permanently displaced in our economy.

The typical black family owns 10 cents to the white family's dollar, and the typical Latino family owns 12 cents, according to a 2007 survey in Insight Center for Economic Development's report. Fixing the economy doesn't substantively address this issue. The pre-recession era was one still marked by an unequal playing field and to return to that status does us a disservice.

We also must reinvest in African-American and Latino communities in a way that helps them sustain their wealth in the future. As noted by InsightCCED.org, 42 percent of whites own an IRA or Keogh compared to only 7 percent of African-Americans and 8 percent of Latinos. African-Americans are 23.3 and Hispanics 28.3 percentage points less likely than all families to have direct or indirect holdings of publicly traded stock. It is essential that these communities not only have the power to spend and earn an equal income for equal work, but be able to sustain wealth and build assets. If not, this cycle of ethnic recession will continue.

To specifically address the particularized training and reemployment challenges for the most vulnerable communities, including African Americans, Latinos, the elderly, and people with disabilities, we recommend, as a start, these direct solutions:

1. Establishing an Interagency Task Force in the Federal Administration.

2. Strengthening enforcement and monitoring of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prevents employment discrimination against individuals on the basis of race and ethnicity.

3. Integrate universal, age-appropriate, and culturally-relevant financial education opportunities into the K-12 curriculum and into post-secondary and community-based education settings.

4. Passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act which increases Pell Grant scholarships; invests in HBCUs; and lowers interest rates on student loans

5. Eliminating credit-checks as a condition for employment due to their disproportionate impact on candidates of color. Even for entry level jobs, or for jobs where there is no requirement or opportunity to handle money, the criteria of a clean credit record is often applied despite evidence that an imperfect credit record is not an accurate predictor of job competence or workplace theft.

We believe in the Obama administration's effort to revitalize the economy as a whole, but also recognize that implicit racial bias in the employment sector has a significant impact on the disproportionate disparities in unemployment we see today. The recession and the problems encompassed therein are nothing new for African-Americans and Latinos and merely a continuation of the plight of the last several decades. Fixing the economy must not just be about a return to pre-recession conditions, but forging a new path to economic sustainability for all.

*Kenneth Chandler, public policy associate, contributed to this article.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.