Janine Jackson interviewed CEPR’s Algernon Austin about race and unemployment for the March 10, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: The unspoken premise of most major news reporting is that people are all independent economic actors, making choices about what skills to acquire, what workplace to work at, what salary to negotiate. The economy, overall, reflects the range of those choices and their impacts. The idea that people find themselves in jobs or sectors with differing pay scales and workplace rights informs what news media see as acceptable states of affairs, and what they present as reasonable interventions.
Which is why it takes an active effort to see the role that policy has played, and does play, in shaping employment opportunities, and, what’s more, how using policy to help people would reflect not the insertion of the government hand into a hitherto untampered-with realm, but simply the use of policy to address a keystone problem.
Algernon Austin is the director for race and economic justice at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and author of, most recently, America Is Not Post-Racial: Xenophobia, Islamophobia, Racism and the 44th President.
He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Algernon Austin.
Algernon Austin: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
JJ: The headlines tell me that unemployment in the United States is at a record low, and you sort of seem uninformed or churlish to not acknowledge, if not celebrate, that.
But it’s important, isn’t it, to recognize the limits of that raw number? What and who is being obscured there?
AA: Absolutely. The unemployment rate, it’s a valid statistical measure. However, it’s important to recognize its limitations.
To be counted as unemployed, you have to be actively looking for work in the past four weeks. And if you have faced significant obstacles in finding work, or if you are unfortunate enough to live in some of our more economically depressed areas, then you’re not likely to be actively looking for work, because you’ve been rejected repeatedly from employers, or you look around your community and you know that there are no jobs available.
And for individuals in those circumstances, they stopped actively looking for work, although they would like to work. But even though they don’t have a job and would like to work, because they’re not actively looking for work, they are not counted as unemployed.
So in that way, the unemployment rate presents a significant undercount of the overall rate of joblessness. And the undercount is most severe in populations that, as I mentioned, face a lot of discrimination in the labor market, or live in more economically disadvantaged communities.
So that means that, although the Black unemployment rate has been consistently about twice the white unemployment rate for the last 60 years–so this two-to-one ratio has been a permanent, sort of structural feature of our economy–although that Black unemployment rate being twice the white rate is still a high rate, it still undercounts the Black joblessness by a significant degree.
So, if we had a count of Black joblessness, it would be a multiple, two, three, four times what the official Black unemployment rate is.
JJ: I wanted to ask you, because part of the celebration about the relatively low unemployment rate has said, “and this is also reflecting advances in terms of Black employment.” So what is the status, you’ve just indicated it, but comparative Black and white employment, or unemployment, is that changing, historically, that relationship?
AA: No, over the last 60 years—and I highlight 60 years because this is the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And the title, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—this is the march where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech—people forget that there were significant economic demands, including demands for jobs, at that march.
And unfortunately, the Black unemployment rate was twice the white unemployment rate in 1963. It’s about twice the white unemployment rate today. And it’s been about twice the white unemployment rate for all 60 years. So this is a serious structural problem in American society, and it’s a problem because of racial discrimination in the labor market.
I talked about the economically depressed communities; Black communities have been hurt significantly by the decline in manufacturing, because of deindustrialization, etc.
And the broader problem, remember, I said that there’s lots of joblessness that’s not being counted. Mass incarceration that hit Black communities, and Black men particularly severely, contributes to that hidden joblessness in Black communities. Because if you’re a Black man and you have a criminal record, it becomes very difficult for you to find work, among the Black populations that are not likely to be counted in unemployment statistics.
JJ: I want to talk to you a little bit about history, which is so relevant here, but often kind of dropped out. The history is there to be found, but it seems like only some things survive as a dominant narrative.
And one thing that has dropped out is the role that the government played with regard to jobs during the Great Depression. And I wonder if you could just tell listeners a little something about that, and the import of that history today?
AA: Yes, it’s important to recognize, people don’t fully recognize—this gets me to a sort of tangential issue—our discourse about the working class in the United States tends to be coded white, but the majority of Black people are working-class people, the majority of Latino people are working-class people. And increasingly, as our country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, the working class is every day becoming more and more racially and ethnically diverse.
So we really have to change our thinking: When we think about working class, remember that we’re also talking about the majority of Black people, and the majority of the Latino or Hispanic population.
So the WPA, the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, it’s really important for people to realize that in response to this massive economic downturn and massive high rates of unemployment, the government stepped in and directly created jobs for people.
And the positive thing about that is that it included Black people. And at the height of the WPA jobs program, over 400,000 Black workers were employed by the WPA.
So this is a really important example, because it shows that the federal government can create jobs, and can employ Black workers.
Today, as I mentioned, even in a period of historically low unemployment rate for Black people, because the Black unemployment rate is still twice the white unemployment rate, and because a lot of Black joblessness is not counted in the unemployment rate, we still have a massive need for jobs in Black communities.
And the WPA shows us that the federal government can actually address this, through direct job creation, through subsidized employment programs, which is what the WPA was.
And I’m actually involved in a campaign that’s called Full Employment for All, that’s calling for the federal government to create a national subsidized employment program that’s targeted to communities that suffer from persistently high rates of joblessness, and people can find out about that, and sign on to it, at the website FullEmploymentForAll.org.
And although we’re talking about the importance and the crisis of joblessness for Black people, it’s important to recognize that there are other places across the country that also have significant levels of joblessness.
So, in Appalachia, you also have significant joblessness. In the Southwest, you can find several communities with high levels of joblessness. Among the Native American or American Indian population, you can find many of those communities suffering from high rates of joblessness.
President Biden, in his State of the Union address, talked about forgotten places and people. And so Full Employment for All is about, let’s target job creation to these forgotten places and people, and include them in the American economy.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, on the level of ideas and in terms of media, it’s seen as unserious or unsophisticated to say that you can’t understand why we have lots of people who want jobs and lots of jobs that want doing, and the idea that the government would play a role in connecting those things is somehow not serious.
And I just wonder how we fight that.
AA: Yeah, it’s like you said, I think, in your introduction, the government exists to serve the people, the government exists to make our lives better.
And, unfortunately, the American government does do that. But unfortunately, it does that primarily for the wealthy people who pay the lobbyists.
So the government is constantly enacting policies that help people–it’s often helping wealthy people via helping corporations.
But what we saw during the Great Depression, with the WPA, was the government working to help average working people. And we need more efforts to get our policymakers to enact policies that help average working people, or average people who would like to work, as I’m doing in the Full Employment for All campaign, making sure the government provides jobs for those people.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Algernon Austin; he’s director for race and economic justice at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. They’re online at CEPR.net. And that website we’ve discussed is FullEmploymentForAll.org. Thank you so much, Algernon Austin, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AA: It’s been a great pleasure for me.
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This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.