U.S. employers added 169,000 new nonagricultural jobs in August, while the national unemployment rate declined to 4.9 percent from 5.0 percent, the Labor Department reported on September 2. Crucially the nation’s payrolls are expanding, finally, at rates of job growth similar to those 10 years ago. Yet for one group of workers in America’s labor force, there is little to cheer about.
The August jobless rate for America’s black teens (ages 16 to 19 years) was 35.8 percent, up by 2.7 percentage points from July. The over-all jobless rate for U.S. teenagers was 16.5 percent in August versus July’s 16.1 percent. Black teenagers are out of a job at more than twice the national rate for their age group. It is worth noting that the Labor Department’s August jobs data was collected before the disaster of Hurricane Katrina that affected African Americans most harshly.
Against that backdrop, employment for black teens living in urban areas across the nation is worsened by two factors. “Housing discrimination and inadequate transportation make it difficult for these youth to leave the central cities,” writes author and economist Michael D. Yates.
The under-funded U.S. public transit system is a result of over-investment in the private auto. Since skin color correlates to economic class in the U.S., it stands to reason that those who lack funds for a car would also be most reliant upon mass transit to travel to and from work.
Concerning shelter, the G.I. Bill for returning World War II veterans discriminated against blacks, adversely impacting them and their descendants. “The military, the Veterans’ Administration, the U.S. Employment Service, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) effectively denied African-American GIs access to their benefits and to the new educational, occupational, and residential opportunities,” writes author and scholar Karen Brodkin Sacks. As a result of this institutional racism, blacks’ equality has suffered. This blight on the nation continues in 2005.
Despite the current and sustained employment distress for black youth, the U.S. labor market is the so-called global model for other nations to follow. Under American capitalism, enhanced employment and investment opportunities are supposed to grow when the private sector is freed from government regulation that provides market protection to the working population. It is worth noting that the Bush White House has applied this “free” market theory to the rebuilding of Iraq. In his September 15 speech, the president outlined a similar recovery plan that privileges the private sector for Katrina victims in the Gulf Coast states.
Crucially, this ideal of market economics prevails in U.S. academia. It is a place for “tenured radicals” only in the minds of right-wing media and corporate-funded think tanks. Examples include the American Enterprise Institute, CATO Institute and Heritage Foundation. Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago is perhaps the leading exponent of “free” market economics. In sum, he equates capitalism with freedom. Similarly, President Bush equates “free” markets with democracy, most notably in Iraq, occupied by the invading U.S. military and mercenaries since March 2003.
In the meantime, the reality of the job market as a site of opportunity is another matter entirely for America’s black teens. Nevertheless, their bitter employment plight is hardly newsworthy in the corporate press’ coverage of the August jobs report. That is a failure of American journalism. It is unable to report the structural lack of equality for black teens across the U.S. They are experiencing joblessness as rates comparable to the over-all adult labor force during the Great Depression of the 1930s. If that is not front-page news, we need a new definition of the term.
As my late father told me, folks in the depression era had greetings that fit the hard times they lived. One example was “Are you working?” Some seven decades ago, he lived in New York City and gained employment that paid him wages. He worked in rural areas for the Civilian Conservation Corps when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the U.S. Then, the American people’s organized resistance to the hardships they faced in an era of economic contraction forced the federal government to respond when the private sector failed to create jobs.
Then, grass-roots political pressure sparked some labor unions to have a broader social vision of the common good than is the current case for America’s union movement. Struggles between employees and employers over the working day in the 1930s and before helped to pave the way for the landmark social legislation known as the New Deal under FDR. Since being enacted, these welfare-state policies for working people have been under constant attack by capital and its apologists inside and outside of the government.
Consider Social Security, 70 years old. It is in fine financial shape through the mid-century. “All projections show that Social Security will always be able to pay a higher benefit to future retirees than it does to current retires,” writes economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In contrast, Friedrich Hayek opposed the program from the start. He has a section on “The Crisis of Social Security” in a book titled The Constitution of Liberty (1960). It lays out the privatization program (health care, prisons and schools) that the U.S. working class faces in 2005, explains author John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon.
Currently, the American economy is growing. New jobs are being created in many sectors, including construction, education, health services, real estate, restaurant and retail. It is worth noting that the bubble in housing prices has kindled consumption spending and partly led to such employment growth. Significantly, that job creation has not increased hiring for black teens.
Such a trend cries out for progressive policy solutions, with employment rights for all at the top of the list. Such solutions, however, are muted in the right-wing culture of capitalist triumph and U.S.-led wars underway since the fall of the former Soviet Union.
In the meantime, recent U.S. job expansion has spurred some growth of real wages, what people can actually buy with their pay. Main Street’s gain is Wall Street’s pain, as this rise in real wages could, along with the rising costs of crude oil and natural gas, cause inflation (the rise in the prices of goods and services). This scenario would boost the cost of borrowed money and reduce the rates of return on bonds. That rise in the cost of credit could well deflate the boom in housing prices, contracting the sectors of the economy that have grown in response, namely construction and real estate.
At the same time, there is a festering jobs crisis for America’s black youth that precedes the real estate bubble, much as pre-Katrina poverty was a daily fact of life in the Gulf Coast states. Crucially, African American youth across the U.S. are living in depression-like times concerning employment opportunities, with their absence from payrolls being overlooked in corporate news, and by President Bush.
In closing, the racial gap in hiring for black teens is outrageous. It is the latest chapter in the economics of America’s color line. Americans of all backgrounds who are outraged at this gap and the indifference paid to it by Congress, and state and local governments should let them know.
SETH SANDRONSKY, a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brodkin, Karen. How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America. Rutgers University Press. 1998.
Yates, Michael D. Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. Monthly Review Press. 2003.
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