How High Is African-American Unemployment and Is It Going Down?

BY Paul Solman  May 24, 2013 at 1:17 PM EDT

Paul Solman answers questions from the PBS NewsHour audience on business and economic news here on his Making Sense Business Desk page.

Paul Solman: Last hired, first fired. It’s a cliché of the labor market that becomes an especially bitter reality during economic downturns. In both the Great Depression of the 1930s and the more recent Great Recession, the cliché held particularly true for African-Americans, as we pointed out in this broadcast story about East St. Louis from 2009.

So how are African-Americans faring in the labor market these days? The question is prompted by this email from Dr. Napoleon N. Vaughn of Philadelphia:

What is the unemployment rate for blacks 16-24 with less than high school, high school only, and four years of college?

The answer to Dr. Vaughn’s question: Dismal. Indeed, the numbers never cease to stun me.

Start with the overall unemployment rate for the category “Black or African-American” in Table A-2 of the “Employment Situation Survey” that is published at 8:30 in the morning on the first Friday of every month. May’s Table A-2 reports a black unemployment rate for April of 13.2 percent. Astoundingly, that is slightly higher than the seasonally adjusted rate a year ago. For April 2012, the rate was officially 13.1 percent.

The reason I write “officially” is that the real numbers are surely much higher. Every month on this page we calculate a more inclusive measure of un- and underemployment, what we call “U-7.” The most recent post containing the U-7 data reports a U-7 of 16 percent, more than double the official overall unemployment figure of 7.5 percent. Admittedly, much of the difference is accounted for by part-time workers who say they want full-time work. But remember: if you worked just one hour in the past week, you’re officially counted as “employed.” Furthermore, the rest of the difference is made up of people who haven’t looked for work in the past week, known as “discouraged” workers.

Since the U-7 rate is more than double the official unemployment rate, the broader measure of African-American un- and underemployment would be more than 28 percent.

Table A-2 also breaks down employment by age.

There is no breakdown for 16-24 year olds, but there is one for 16-19 year old African-Americans, kids who obviously have no college degrees of any kind. Their official unemployment rate is — I’m not making this up — 40.8 percent. By comparison the so-called white rate for 16-19 year-olds is officially 21.8 percent.

Again, adjusting for those who are barely employed or haven’t looked for work in the past week, African-Americans aged 16-19 and not in school undoubtedly have an unemployment rate well in excess of 40 percent.

As for educational attainment beyond age 19, the monthly data are not broken down by race or age. But you can see how much higher the numbers are for all Americans “25 years and older”: an official unemployment rate of 11.6 percent for those who haven’t finished high school; 7.4 percent for those with a high school diploma but “no college”; 6.4 percent for “some college or associate degree” from a community or junior college and only 3.9 percent for those in the category “Bachelor’s degree and higher.”

What you might call “full employment,” then, would seem to be about 4 percent. Young African-Americans have an unemployment rate more than ten times as high.

In 2010 Paul Solman reported on African-American unemployment.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions