What can be done about today’s unemployment statistics?

BY Business Desk  August 11, 2008 at 10:40 AM EST

Unemployment office; AP
Question/Comment: What can be done about the fact that in today’s unemployment statistics, there are only four times as many whites unemployed as blacks, despite there being six times as many whites in the labor force?

Paul Solman: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site there were roughly 6.4 million whites, 16 or older unemployed, and 1.7 million unemployed blacks. So you’re roughly right about the 3.8-to-1 ratio. Meanwhile, since blacks represent less than 13 percent of the population, the labor force ratio, all else equal, should be almost 8-to-1.

In short, the black unemployment rate is almost double the white rate, which is just what the official data suggest: 9.7 percent versus 5.1 percent for those 16 and older. So your numbers check out. That’s the easy part.

You then ask: “What can be done?” You really expect an answer about how to how to more fully employ America’s black population?

OK, I’ll bite.

How about a huge local and national investment in schools – traditional public and charter? Much lower teacher-student ratios? Much higher salaries? Watch our recent piece on High Tech High in San Diego and another one that will appear on the NewsHour soon.

There are, in other words, schools that can make a difference and the social science research is clear and unequivocal: the earlier we invest in a person, the bigger the economic payoff will be to society down the line.

But for all the urgency of the problem, you might want to cultivate a certain Stoicism as well. The almost surreal historical experience of African-Americans in this country may seem too well-known and grim to recall, but just recently I read Never Been a Time, a book by the journalist and historian Harper Barnes on the anti-black race riots in East St. Louis, Ill., in 1917. At one point, I broke down crying.

I offered a blurb for the book which remains thoroughly heartfelt: “You put ‘Never Been a Time’ down and think, ‘How can I imagine myself an educated American and not know this?’ Read it if you can bear to. And then remember how deep a problem we’re all up against, black folks most of all.