TOPICS > Economy

Unemployment Rate Holds Steady, but Minorities Still Worse Off

March 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The nation's unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent in February, but jobless rates for blacks and Latinos remain high. Judy Woodruff talks to two financial and policy experts about the disparity.

JIM LEHRER: Today’s monthly look at unemployment was considered good news, as the jobless rate remained unchanged.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The report did show the economy lost more jobs, but not as many as expected.

Americans waiting to apply for work may not have noticed, but February was the fourth month in a row that the jobless rate either fell slightly or stayed the same. It peaked at 10.1 percent in October, dropped to 9.7 in January, and held there again last month.

The Labor Department reported employers cut another 36,000 jobs, but there had been predictions the figure would be worse, as many as 100,000.

HARRY HOLZER, professor of public policy, Georgetown University: I think the numbers show that we are approaching the very bottom of the business cycle, in terms of employment, what you might call the trough, but we’re not quite there yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Harry Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and former chief economist at the Labor Department.

HARRY HOLZER: Job losses are getting smaller, but they haven’t disappeared. They are concentrated in a limited number of sectors, like construction, finance, and the government. But we might not have reached bottom yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some economists have suggested there would have been a net increase in jobs last month, if not for blizzards in the Midwest and East. But the bureau of labor statistics commissioner, Keith Hall, wasn’t ready to go that far today. He was questioned before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

MAN: So, would you say that the snowstorms distorted the job numbers you are presenting today?

KEITH HALL, commissioner, Bureau of Labor Statistics: You know, I would say it’s really hard to tell. And — and I would say we won’t know — we will have a much better idea, I would say, by looking at next month’s numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, President Obama welcomed the February numbers. He spoke during a visit to a Washington-area energy company.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The measures that we are taking to turn our economy around are having some impact. But even though it is better than expected, it’s more than we should tolerate. Far too many Americans remain out of work. Far too many families are still struggling in these difficult economic times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The jobs report showed the struggle is even more acute for minorities. Unemployment among blacks was almost 16 percent. For Hispanics, the rate topped 12 percent. In contrast, white unemployment stood at 8.8 percent.

And, at Georgetown, Holzer said the U.S. still faces the challenge of creating enough new jobs to get the recovery moving.

HARRY HOLZER: In the last few years, we have lost over eight million jobs. To get unemployment back down to where it was before the recession, at about 4.5 percent, we not only have to create those eight million new jobs, but we will need about three million more to cover all the workers that get added to the labor market, that join the labor force every year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, at job fairs around the country, some employers are seeing streams of would-be workers, many of them over-qualified.

In California, The Los Angeles Times reports theme parks, like Disneyland, have had floods of white-collar applicants to fill openings. Still, it’s widely expected the overall pace of hiring will stay slow this year.

For a closer look at racial disparities revealed in the unemployment numbers, we turn to two people who follow the subject closely. Algernon Austin is director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute. And Mark Hugo Lopez is an economist and associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Gentlemen, good to see you both. We appreciate you being here.

ALGERNON AUSTIN, program on race, Ethnicity and the Economy Director, Economic Policy Institute: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Algernon Austin, why are the rates so much higher for minorities?

ALGERNON AUSTIN: Well, there are a number of factors involved, one, for blacks and Latinos, lower educational attainment. Other factors include age. They’re both slightly younger. And younger groups have higher unemployment rates.

Region, some of the whitest states in the country have the lowest unemployment rates. Some of the most diverse states have some of the highest unemployment rates. There’s also the persistent issue of discrimination in the labor market. We continue to see that also at play in producing the unemployment disparities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s dig into some of those factors one by one.

Mark Lopez, what about this education. How much disparity is there when it comes to education, and how much difference does it make?

MARK HUGO LOPEZ, associate director, Pew Hispanic Center: When we talk about Latinos, Latinos have lower levels of educational attainment on the whole, particularly when we talk about young Latinos. You really see this when it comes it to the high school dropout rate.

Young Hispanics are — are two to three times more likely to not have graduated from high school or not have a high school diploma than is true for other young people in the United States. And when we talk about going to college and college attainment, Hispanics continue to lag behind other groups in terms of college attainment and getting a bachelor’s degree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the matter of age that Algernon Austin just mentioned?

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: Well, for Latinos, one of the most interesting characteristics of the Latino population is that, while there are 47 million, 48 million Hispanics in the U.S., the median age for Hispanics is about 27. For whites, it’s more like 40.

So, there’s a tremendous difference in the age distribution among Hispanics. Many are under the age of 18 and just haven’t entered the labor market just yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Flesh that out a little bit more for us in terms of education, age, and the geographic differences.

ALGERNON AUSTIN: Right. Right. So, states like the Dakotas and Wyoming have very low unemployment rates. On the other hand, California, Detroit, Nevada and other more diverse states, states with large minority populations, have very high, some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

So, that — the contributes to some of the disparities that we see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it — is it worse in this recession for minorities than in previous recessions?

ALGERNON AUSTIN: For Hispanics, it may be worse. I’m not sure.

But Hispanics were — Hispanic males were heavily concentrated in the construction sector. So, for that reason, construction — with the bursting of the housing bubble, construction got hit very hard. So there is a very sharp rise in the Hispanic unemployment rate.

The black unemployment rate is quite high, but it’s not quite as high as it reached in the 1980s’ recession.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it is a factor, Mark Lopez, that it depends on the sector of the economy. And it is construction that has been hit very hard.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: Yes. That’s — that’s particularly true. What is interesting is that, in the past decade, what we saw during the — the height of the housing boom, is that the unemployment rate between — the unemployment rate for Hispanics and the unemployment rate for non-Hispanics virtually merged.

In other words, we saw very little bit of a gap between the two groups. So, Hispanics made tremendous employment progress throughout this past decade. But with the burst in the housing bubble and the drop in construction jobs, also manufacturing, the gap has widened to what we had traditionally seen in the decade prior to this current decade.

But Hispanics have made tremendous progress in this past decade in unemployment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know, Algernon Austin, that African-Americans made progress in the 1990s. Have those gains been wiped out by this recession?

ALGERNON AUSTIN: Yes, some of the broader economic gains, even before the recession officially started — I mean, the foreclosure crisis really, I think, hit African-Americans first. So, we saw sort of declines in homeownership, declines in home wealth.

And those are — those disparities, in terms of wealth and income, and in terms of the poverty rates, we will see open up over time, because, unfortunately, the effects of this recession are going to be long-lasting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also mentioned discrimination.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Has it been documented how much discrimination plays a role?

ALGERNON AUSTIN: Yes, the precise amount is not clear, but it’s clear that it is an important factor. So, for example, one thing to note is that, yes, education plays a role. But, as Mark just said, Latinos have the lowest sort of educational attainment on average.

Yet, it’s blacks who have the highest unemployment rate. So, it’s not education alone that’s affecting that. And researchers have done excellent audit studies where they sent white and black applicants out to employers, presenting the same information in the same ways.

And those studies repeatedly show that employers are more likely to give a job offer to the white applicant than the black applicant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the Latino community, you know, both touching on the question of discrimination, but overall, is there a sense that it’s worse this time?

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: Well, a recent survey that the Pew Research Center did asking Americans generally about which group do you think encounters the most discrimination, or a lot of discrimination, and one of the surprising findings — or one of the interesting findings in this particular report was that, actually, the public sees Hispanics as the group that is most discriminated against right now.

Twenty-three percent of Americans said that Hispanics were the ones that are discriminated a lot — against a lot. That is different from what we saw in — in 2001. In 2001, it was African-Americans who were perceived by the public as having or experiencing the most discrimination.

So, we have seen a little bit of a flip here. Now, what is driving that, we don’t know. This is something that we have been unable to explore thoroughly. But the data suggests that the public sees Hispanics as being discriminated against more now than African-Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to also ask both of you about this — this thing that we are focusing on more with this recession. And that is underemployment. It’s getting as much attention, almost, practically, as is unemployment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that across all groups? How big a role is that playing, including whites, who are victims…


Yes, the underemployment rates are at historic highs. But even there, we see disparities. I remember — my organization did — tracks these numbers by race. And, if I remember correctly, for December, the underemployment rates for — both for blacks and for Latinos was 25 percent, and, for whites, I think it was about 14 percent — about 15 percent.

So, it’s high overall, historic highs, but there are racial disparities there also.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: Exactly the same.

There is — there’s a high level of underemployment, but it is not just Hispanics and Latinos. There is an undercurrent of underemployment across the entire labor market.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a lot more focus on that.

And, to both of you — Mark Lopez first — coming out of this recession, which we all hope is coming sooner, rather than later, is there a sense that minorities will enjoy the same movement that whites do, or will they — will there be lagging? Is that…

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: I don’t know for sure whether or not we will see that, and whether or not the community — the Hispanic community feels that that is going to happen.

But, certainly, for Hispanics, a lot of ground needs to be made up, because a lot of the job loss, especially earlier part of the recession, occurred among Hispanics. So, for Hispanics, there is a lot of ground to -cover to — to get to where they were before the recession started.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Same sense?


It depends on what the recovery looks like. We’re all hoping that it’s quick and strong. Unfortunately, the signs are not great. But if — it depends on what sectors recover. You know, so, if construction recovers, that’s going to be very beneficial for Hispanic workers. If manufacturing recovers, that will be very good for African-American workers.

And, if it is more — if the jobs require high levels of skill and education, unfortunately, that means that, for — blacks and Latinos are going to be less likely to get those jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a grim picture all the way around, even with a little bit of glimmer of good news.

Algernon Austin, Mark Lopez, thank you both.