We Need a Concrete Jobs Agenda to Reduce Chronic Black Poverty

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On September 13, 2016, the official U.S. poverty rates will be released, and once again we will see that the African American poverty rate is more than double the white rate. The United States—overall—has too high a poverty rate for such a rich country.

For example, in 2013, UNICEF ranked the U.S. child poverty rate 33rd out of 41 rich countries. We have a child poverty rate twice that of Australia, three times that of Ireland, four times that of Denmark, and more than five times that of Finland—the country with the lowest ranking. It is shameful that a country as rich as ours performs so poorly. And, of course, the black poverty rate in the U.S. is much worse than the overall average used for the UNICEF ranking.

There is much that can be done to reduce poverty in the United States. One option that, unfortunately, is not being discussed enough by advocates and policymakers is job creation. The best anti-poverty program is a good job. The lowest black poverty rate on record was in 2000, the year of the highest black employment rate. Even in 2000, however, the black unemployment rate was twice the white rate.

African Americans have been suffering from high levels of joblessness for two generations. Since the 1960s, the black-to-white unemployment-rate ratio has been about 2-to-1. This means that the rates of unemployment that whites experience during recessions is about the same as what blacks experience during periods of strong economic growth. When whites are experiencing full employment, blacks are experiencing levels of unemployment that whites would call a recession. Because of this fact, the black poverty rate is always much higher than the white poverty rate. If we wish to lower the black poverty rate, we need more good jobs for African Americans.

The persistence of high African American unemployment is largely due to racial discrimination in the American labor market. My research finds that about a third of Americans has a high level of anti-black racial resentment. Implicit bias researchers find that about three quarters of Americans have a subconscious bias against blacks. Blacks routinely encounter employers who are not inclined to hire them because of their race.

African Americans want to work. Only persons actively looking for work are counted as unemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. African Americans are also much better educated today than they were in the 1960s. The share of black young adults completing college has quadrupled since 1960. In spite of this educational advance, the black unemployment rate continues to be twice the white unemployment rate. Even black graduates with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) bachelor’s degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as white graduates with STEM degrees.

The high unemployment that African Americans have faced decade after decade since the 1960s show that the normal operations of the American labor market cannot by itself produce low unemployment for blacks. There is too much anti-black discrimination remaining in American society. We need government programs that are targeted to providing jobs for African Americans.

A smart place to begin is with infrastructure investments. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ rating in 2013. It is likely that the infrastructure needs are even more acute in African American communities. We need government programs to put African Americans to work rebuilding the infrastructure in African American communities. This infrastructure investment should be part of a broader general investment in America’s infrastructure. There is much work to be done to see that African American communities are safe, healthy, and enriching environments. By seeing that African Americans receive an appropriate share of this work, we can help transform these communities into low-poverty communities too.

This election year African American voters and their allies need to insist that the presidential candidates have concrete plans for African American job creation. Given the poor state of America’s infrastructure, infrastructure investments is an obvious starting point. The recent history of the Tea Party has shown that a relatively small share of the population that is committed to voting—in primaries, in off-year elections, in local and state elections, as well as in presidential elections—and that is willing to contact their elected representatives can have a great deal of political power. Only with an effective mobilization will black communities finally be able to get the jobs they need to fight black poverty.

Dr. Algernon Austin is a Senior Research Fellow at Global Policy Solutions and the Center for Global Policy Solutions (GPS), a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy and nonprofit founded on the principle that a more inclusive society is a stronger, more prosperous one.

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