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U.S. Unemployment Is At A 50-Year Low. But Not Everybody's A Winner

In this Nov. 27, 2018 photo, signs hang from windows at the UAW Local 1112 union hall, in Lordstown, Ohio. (Tony Dejak/AP)
In this Nov. 27, 2018 photo, signs hang from windows at the UAW Local 1112 union hall, in Lordstown, Ohio. (Tony Dejak/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

U.S. unemployment is at the lowest level in nearly 50 years. We look at who wins and who loses in a strong labor market.


Scott Horsley, NPR chief economic correspondent. (@HorsleyScott)

Andre Perry, fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Author of the forthcoming book “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.” (@andreperryedu)

Alexia Kulwiec, professor in the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin. Former lead attorney for Service Employees International Union Local 1 in Chicago.

From The Reading List

NPR: “America Is In Full Employment, So Why Aren’t We Celebrating?” — “These are prosperous times in America. The country is plump with jobs. Out of every 100 people who want to work, more than 96 of them have jobs. This is what economists consider full employment.

“The economy has grown for almost 10 years, making it one of the longest economic expansions in U.S. history. And over that time, the job market has come back. It grew slowly at first, then steadily, finally reaching a point at which there are many more openings than job seekers.

“Unemployment has reached a nearly 50-year low. The jobless rate for Hispanics has never been lower; the past two years have been the best job market ever for African Americans. Wages are starting to rise — and, more significantly, for the lowest-paid workers. That may not endure, but it’s a reversal of the long-term trend where the most highly paid workers were also the best rewarded. The job market today is so hot that groups that were sort of on the margins also are finding opportunities — including people with disabilities or a prison record.”

BrookingsInstitution: “Who deserves credit for African American employment?” — “When it comes to black employment, more credit for improvement should go to the very persons holding and hiring for the jobs. Notwithstanding the improving national unemployment rates, structural racism still precludes erasing employment disparities between racial groups. We should celebrate all people’s contributions to a robust economy, but we should not allow improvements in the aggregate to hide inequality behind the numbers.

“After being in office for a year, Trump is claiming the lowest African American unemployment rate ever as a result of him being in office. The fuller picture shows that unemployment among blacks has been declining since the early Obama years. However, blaming one’s predecessor for bad employment numbers while accepting signs of growth is a presidential tradition of sorts; and at 6.8 percent, Trump has squatters’ rights on the lowest unemployment rate since the federal government started calculating the metric in 1972.

“Nevertheless , there are certainly other people in specific places who deserve substantial credit for black employment. Instead of looking at national unemployment averages, which can mask geographic inequities, a look at cities’ individual employment rates offers another perspective on where credit for putting people to work should be given. Notwithstanding the broader macroeconomic forces that impact the flow of goods and services nationally, we can get a sense of how fertile and equitable a local economy is by examining cities’ employment profiles.”

Washington Post: “Trump’s outdated spin on the black unemployment rate” — “In tweets and interviews, speeches and campaign rallies, Trump often takes credit for a decline in the unemployment rate for African Americans. It’s a well-worn talking point that appears dozens of times in our database of Trump’s false or misleading statements.

“Regardless of whether the black unemployment rate goes up or down in a given month, the president celebrates it as the ‘lowest in history’ or lowest on record.

“That was accurate in May 2018, when the rate declined to 5.9 percent, its lowest level since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began to report it in 1972. Fast-forward to February 2019, and the unemployment rate for African Americans had jumped back to 7 percent, erasing all the gains it had made over the previous year.

“Yet Trump continues to talk about it as the lowest rate in history. What gives?”

NPR: “Even When Black Unemployment Is At Record Lows, It’s Dangerously High” — “On Tuesday, President Trump painted a rosy picture of the economy during his first State of the Union speech: rising wages, a boom in manufacturing jobs, jobless claims were at their lowest in nearly half a century.

“But one of the biggest applause breaks during his survey of the landscape greeted this claim: ‘Something I’m very proud of — African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded.’ Cue hoots and hollers and a standing ovation from the members of Congress on the chamber floor.

“It was an oddly showy response from the folks in attendance, given how little serious attention is usually paid to black unemployment by members of Congress. Really, who knew they cared so much?

“The qualifiers for the president’s claims around black joblessness are pretty significant; indeed, they’re actually the whole story. Most of the improvement in the jobs figures are part of an ongoing trend that can be attributed to the Fed’s management of the economy under Janet Yellen, whom President Trump declined to renominate to run the nation’s central bank. And while the black employment numbers were historically low, at the time of Trump’s speech, the most recent jobs data put black unemployment at 6.8 percent. If those numbers were the overall national figures, the country would be in or near a recession. Consider that for as far back as the data goes, black unemployment has consistently been around twice the rate of joblessness for white people, in strong economies or sluggish ones. If the broader economy is on solid footing, black unemployment numbers is high. When the nation is a downturn, black employment figures teeter on the catastrophic.”

Brian Hardzinski produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.