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Unemployment Rate Dips for Blacks

TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya, who is on vacation.

Each month, the U.S. Labor Department releases data on the unemployment rate. No matter how the numbers change, one thing has stayed constant, that's this: The percentage of African-Americans who are unemployed is far higher than the national average. It has held steady at around double the rate for whites.

But numbers released last Friday suggest a new trend. For the first time in five years, the African-American unemployment rate dipped. It went from 8.4 in December 2006 to eight percent in January. Meantime, the rates held steady at around four percent for whites.

What's the bottom line here? Do the numbers indicate the job market is looking up for African-Americans, or is the drop a one-time drop in the bucket? Bernard Anderson is professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and the former assistant secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration.

He joins us from the studios of Audio Post Philadelphia. Nice to have you back with us, Bernard.

Professor BERNARD ANDERSON (Management, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you. Glad to be with you.

COX: Let's begin with this: How significant is this bump? Is it just a hiccup, is it seasonal, or perhaps the start of a trend?

Prof. ANDERSON: Well, it's not very significant. One thing you learn about economic statistics is that you don't put much stock in one month's movement. You need more than that. You need at least a quarter, that that is three months evidence. And there is no question that black employment rose up last month. It went up by about 567,000 in the last year as part of an increase in total employment of 2.8 million.

But the most significant factor it seems to me, based on the statement that you made in your introductory comments, is the remaining two to one ratio of black-white unemployment, which is the most enduring of all labor statistics. For the past four years, there has been virtually no change in the two to one ratio of unemployment between African-Americans and whites in this economy.

COX: Let me ask you what kinds of job generally fuel these reports on unemployment figures? For example, do they include day laborers? Are they service industry jobs, or white-collar or blue collar, or maybe all of the above?

Prof. ANDERSON: All of the above. The way the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures employment is that if any individual is in the labor market seeking a job and has found one, that individual reports that they have a job. This is - they're engaged in economic activity for pay. That is the definition of a job, and all employment that is provided for compensation is counted among the employed.

COX: Now we have heard about how middle-class Americans are being affected in large part by issues like not being able to afford health care, child care - basically how the financial security of middle-class families have further deteriorated in recent years.

As a matter of fact, a recent report from the Center for American Progress, which is called "Middle Class in Turmoil," says that all the gains made in financial security among middle-class families in the 1990s had disappeared by early this century. What trend, if any, have you seen regarding unemployment among middle-class families?

Prof. ANDERSON: The economy is at a crossroads. What we have seen in the recent year is steady balanced economic growth, growth of GDP of about three, three and a half percent. But that growth is having a little impact on improving the economic status of the middle class. We see increases in productivity, but the increases in productivity are not being shared with workers.

Workers' wages are stagnant. Income inequality is worsening. There's a widening gap between the rich and the middle class, and so it has become more and more difficult for American workers to live the American dream. And for African-Americans, despite the modest increase in employment, the American dream is little more than a nightmare.

COX: And you've often said - on this program in the past, in fact - that blacks have a relationship to the economy like what you described as a caboose to a train, and when the train speeds up - that's when the economy speeds up - the caboose speeds up, and vice versa. But the caboose never catches up to the engine.

We've made some fleeting references to the position of blacks with regard to unemployment as compared to whites over the last several years. And I'm assuming that is sort of similar to what this analogy is.

Prof. ANDERSON: Absolutely, and I'm glad you remember that analogy. It's very vivid. Let me say this: What we see here is a gradual change in the American economy that is adversely affecting, disproportionately affecting African-Americans. What we have seen is a long-term decline in manufacturing.

We see the increasing outsourcing of middle-income jobs. First beginning with middle-income blue-collar jobs, and now expanding to white-collar and professional and service jobs. We see a decline in union membership, and that's important because unions are a transmission device through which increases in productivity are passed along to workers in the form of higher wages.

We also see the weakening safety net with pensions and health care and that sort of thing becoming less and less available to more and more workers. And so the basic trends in the economy are manifestly unfavorable to middle-income workers. And it's becoming harder and harder to get ahead by working and playing by the rules.

COX: I've got about 30 seconds left for this final answer and I would wonder - I would like to know from you what you would expect to see - I know you don't have a crystal ball - but what you would expect to see with next month's unemployment figures as they relate to black folks?

Prof. ANDERSON: Well, I never project that. It's too uncertain. I would say this: If the employment continues to increase in the aggregate, we are likely to see some increase in the number of jobs for African-Americans. But I will say this further: As a matter of national policy, we need to have policies that are aimed at eliminating racial inequality in American economic life.

No one is talking about that. The presidential candidates are not talking about that. The only ones who discussed it were Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and I will say in the last election, John Edwards. So we need to focus on eliminating the inequality, eliminating racial inequality in American economic life.

And we're not going to do that without reference to affirmative action and special efforts to expand employment for African-Americans who are fully qualified to be employed across a much broader range of the American economy.

COX: This is where we'll have to stop. Bernard Anderson is professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and the former assistant secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. Bernard Anderson, Thank you very much.

Prof. ANDERSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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