July 19, 2004
An Emerging Catastrophe
rive through some of the black neighborhoods in cities and towns across America and you will see the evidence of an emerging catastrophe — levels of male joblessness that mock the very idea of stable, viable communities.
This slow death of the hopes, pride and well-being of huge numbers of African-Americans is going unnoticed by most other Americans and by political leaders of both parties.
A new study of black male employment trends has come up with the following extremely depressing finding: "By 2002, one of every four black men in the U.S. was idle all year long. This idleness rate was twice as high as that of white and Hispanic males."
It's possible the rate of idleness is even higher, said the lead author of the study, Andrew Sum, who is director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
"That was a conservative count," he said. The study did not consider homeless men or those in jail or prison. It is believed that up to 10 percent of the black male population under age 40 is incarcerated.
While some of the men not working undoubtedly were ill or disabled, the 25 percent figure is still staggeringly high. And for some segments of the black male population, the situation is even worse.
Among black male dropouts, for example, 44 percent were idle year-round, as were nearly 42 of every 100 black men aged 55 to 64.
"I was surprised by the magnitude of the population that was idle all year-round," said Professor Sum. "Typically, some groups will find work part of the year, but not the other part, and you end up with a high joblessness rate. But here we've got a growing number of men just not working at all."
Black men, already in an employment crisis, were hit particularly hard by the last recession and have not done well in the fitful recovery that followed. Jobless rates for some subgroups, black teenagers for example, have been all but off the charts.
Professor Sum and his colleagues got closer than official statistics usually get to the dismal employment reality of black men by using the so-called employment-population ratio, which represents the percentage of a given population that is employed at a given time. The government's official unemployment statistics are often misleading, particularly because people who have stopped looking for work are not counted.
Things fall apart when 25 percent of the male population is jobless. (This does not even begin to address the very serious problems of underemployment, such as part-time or temporary jobs, and extremely low-wage work.) Men in a permanent state of joblessness are in no position to take on the roles of husband and father. Marriage? Forget about it. Child support? Ditto.
For the most part, jobless men are not viewed as marriageable material by women. And they are hardly role models for young people.
Those who remain jobless for a substantial period of time run the risk of becoming permanently unemployable.
This is a tragic situation for the men and their families and a serious problem for society at large. Such a huge all-but-permanently-unemployed population is an obstacle to efforts to achieve full employment and its accompanying benefits. These men are not contributing to tax revenues and they are consuming public and social services. And some, inevitably, are engaged in criminal and other anti-social behavior.
Figuring out ways to get this population gainfully employed would turn a net societal deficit into a real benefit.
Finally, it's just wrong to allow so many Americans to remain in a state of social and economic degradation without attempting to alter the conditions responsible for their suffering.
Education is one of the keys here. As Professor Sum found, 44 percent of black men with no high school diploma were idle year-round versus 26 percent of those with a diploma, and 13 percent of those with a bachelor's (or higher) degree.
The distance from the idleness of the street corner to the warmth of a thriving family is not really that far, especially when a helping hand is offered. But we'll never offer the helping hand if we fail to recognize that there's a problem.