TOPICS > Economy

Black Unemployment in East St. Louis Highlights Disparities

May 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on the high unemployment numbers among blacks in East St. Louis, where painful memories of the Great Depression still persist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As bad as the latest unemployment numbers are, they’re even worse for African-Americans. Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, looks at the impact that’s having in East St. Louis, Illinois. His report is the latest in his series on making sense of economic news.

ANDREW THEISING, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville: East St. Louis is right there.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: Political science Professor Andrew Theising.

ANDREW THEISING: We are about to get on the Poplar Street Bridge, which is the main interstate bridge connecting Missouri and Illinois.

PAUL SOLMAN: A bridge across the Mississippi from St. Louis to East St. Louis, a case study in black unemployment, which jumped last month to more than 17 percent nationwide for men. Add in estimates of so-called discouraged workers and the underemployed and black unemployment is around 30 percent for more in places like this, a number reminiscent of the Great Depression.

The prospects for high school kids?

JOESHAWN WILLIAMS: It’s about who you know. If you don’t know nobody, you’re not getting in there.

PAUL SOLMAN: Prospects for older workers?

BOBBY WILLIAMS: If I can get minimum wage, I’d be happy. But there aren’t any jobs for a 63-year-old man, not in this area that I can get.

Echoes of the Depression

PAUL SOLMAN: It was not always thus. In its heyday for blacks, East St. Louis was all about jobs. They came from the South to work at meat processors, metal works, utility plants.

ANDREW THEISING: Just imagine how much smoke came out of the smokestacks of that, a ton of coal every 30 seconds, and the wind blows to the east.

PAUL SOLMAN: St. Louis, Missouri, got the power. East St. Louis, Illinois, the pollution. Dirty work, but work, until the plants started leaving town, white flight accelerated, and now the Great Recession further ravages, if that's possible, a city that's 99 percent black.

CHERYL LYNN GREENBERG, Trinity College: They have fewer skills. They have less income. They have less savings. They live in the worst areas of town.

PAUL SOLMAN: It reminds historian Cheryl Lynn Greenberg of the worst of times for black unemployment, the Great Depression.

CHERYL LYNN GREENBERG: The depression was hard for everyone, but it was particularly hard for African-Americans. In every way, they fared worse than whites did.

PAUL SOLMAN: That's how they remember it at the senior center.

PEARLINE YARBOROUGH: It was horrible. You didn't have food to eat. The government had to give you food. And they even gave you seeds to plant to make the victory gardens.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did you plant them?

PEARLINE YARBOROUGH: Sure, we planted them. We had to. Otherwise, we would have starved.

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Greenberg has just written the soon-to- appear "To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression."

CHERYL LYNN GREENBERG: At the height of the depression, probably 25 percent of white people were out of work, and that number in the African-American community was between 50 percent and 75 percent, depending on where you looked.

Traffic lights go unrepaired

PAUL SOLMAN: After World War II, industrial cities recovered somewhat, but as the middle class left St. Louis and East St. Louis for the suburbs, their economies and infrastructure crumbled.

ANDREW THEISING: I used to work in East St. Louis for the University of Illinois, and I had to replace the shocks on my car after 30 days.

PAUL SOLMAN: With its industry deteriorating and tax base, too, there's no money to repave the roads or even turn on the traffic lights, says Debra Moore, a former professor who now heads an agency that distributes federal and state grants.

DEBRA MOORE, Executive Director, St. Clair County Grants Department: There's no cost to the city at all to have a light dead, a light totally dysfunctional. That's a way to save money.

PAUL SOLMAN: Eighty thousand people once lived here. The number's now 30,000. No wonder so much is shuttered, including a McDonald's, a KFC, a Wendy's. Even the Casino Queen, the city's second-largest employer, is on a losing streak, prompting layoffs and a $2 million city budget deficit.

DEBRA MOORE: To remedy that deficit, there was a decision yesterday by the mayor and the city leaders to lay off staff, so a determination was made that five police officers would be laid off. The interesting thing, however, is that, during the time of this meeting almost, there was a robbery occurring in the Schnucks store, our local major grocer, and it resulted in the death of a security guard.

PAUL SOLMAN: And yet they're laying off policemen at the same exact moment?

DEBRA MOORE: That is the plan, to lay off policemen.

VICKIE FORBY, Tomorrow's Builders YouthBuild Charter School: This is the recording studio. It's been almost entirely built by the students of YouthBuild.

Connections are extremely important

PAUL SOLMAN: Vickie Forby's charter school takes kids that haven't made it elsewhere. YouthBuild teaches hands-on job skills, like building a recording studio.

VICKIE FORBY: They've done everything from laying the tile, staining the wood, selecting the wood. The ceiling was really incredible to watch them do. They had to tear out all the old tiling that was in the building and take all the old air conditioning system out.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you've got kids here who can do, as far as the eye can see, truly professional work?

VICKIE FORBY: Absolutely.

PAUL SOLMAN: Kids who can build a pro sound studio, but can't find a job.

SHONTEZ BEARD: People that I grew up with, you know, they're either dead or in jail or -- you know what I'm saying? So...

PAUL SOLMAN: Are any of them working?

SHONTEZ BEARD: Not for real.

PAUL SOLMAN: Joeshawn Williams, elaborating on what you heard earlier.

JOESHAWN WILLIAMS: You've got to know somebody. If you don't know nobody, there ain't even no use to wasting your time, because that's what the world's about these days. You've got to know somebody.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is it true?

ANTONIO RHODES: Yes, it's very true, because I done had at least six jobs. And the only reason I have got them was because I knew the manager or I knew one of their employees. You even have to get connections at McDonald's. I don't know why, but it's like that. That's how -- you have to have connections to work at McDonald's.

PAUL SOLMAN: So the cliche would seem to hold: It's not what you know, it's who you know.

And if you live in the inner city, who do you know? You have far fewer valuable human connections, less so-called social capital, a concept developed by economist Glenn Loury, whose own teenager just got a summer job in Cambridge because he does have connections.

GLENN LOURY, Brown University: Did my kid earn that? No. The kid just got the benefit of having his dad know somebody who could hook him up.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you can understand the employer's point of view.

GLENN LOURY: If you get word of mouth, if someone you trust, who'll not send someone over who's going to not work out, then you tend to rely on that. I wish I could make a new world in which these kids didn't sit, you know, over on the dark side of the moon practically in terms of social connection, but there it is.

PAUL SOLMAN: Does it get worse in a downturn?

GLENN LOURY: Yes, it gets desperately worse. Maybe people are falling over into the criminal justice system more so than they otherwise would, things of this kind. So the cost here could be quite substantial.

Blacks hit harder in downturn

PAUL SOLMAN: This is speculative, of course. What's not is that blacks now, as back in the '30s, are being hit hardest, says economist William Rodgers.

WILLIAM RODGERS, Rutgers University: When we entered the recession, African-Americans started with a higher unemployment rate. And as we have gone through these last 16 months, the gap has widened, that is, African-American unemployment rates have risen faster, particularly men's, have risen faster than they have for whites.

BOBBY WILLIAMS: This is the building that I work in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Our last stop in East St. Louis, a burnt townhouse being painted by an old friend of Andy Theising's, Bobby Williams. He at least has a job.

BOBBY WILLIAMS: But not enough money to live off of, not enough money to live off of. If I got $100 bucks a week, I'd be happy.

PAUL SOLMAN: A musician who's long survived as a day-laborer, Williams can no longer rely on the community that once employed him, however meagerly.

BOBBY WILLIAMS: Nobody has any money. I can't walk down the street every day and say, "Let me paint your fence," because the people whose fence that need painting don't have any money to pay for it. Most of the time I wind up doing it for, "Well, you can do this for me, and I'll do this for you."

PAUL SOLMAN: So the Great Recession has left Bobby Williams bartering long after the Great Depression. It's a richer, more equal country, but for students of African-American employment, there's a sense in which it's the same, old song.