The New Dream

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In January and February the national unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent— lower than in late 2009. That was seen as a sign that the economy was rounding the corner.. But unemployment among men and blacks was little changed. About 2.5 million people—400,000 more than a year earlier—were considered marginally attached to the labor force, meaning they weren’t considered unemployed but said they wanted a job. According to the EPI, there were still 6 job seekers per available job.

Even after a national recovery has started, pain might persist in New York. In past recoveries, the city has lagged national growth. New York’s Independent Budget Office predicts that employment will start growing again in the third quarter of this year, through 2011 and 2012, and then moderate. But growth is a term that covers a range of trajectories. Growth after some recessions is quite robust. The rebound from the post- 9/11 recession, on the other hand, was pretty lukewarm—particularly for blacks. That’s part of what makes the boom-bust roller coaster a tough ride for black men. “It’s almost as if [blacks] take two steps forward and two steps back,” says Brian Miller of United for a Fair Economy. “It makes it very difficult to make long-term progress.”

The best thing for unemployed black men, of course, would be a long-term economic boom that pulls them back into employment. But that won’t address the plight of the black men who are out of the labor pool entirely. Even the 1990s boom, which cut black unemployment dramatically, didn’t reduce the ranks of blacks who have stopped looking for work. A rising tide isn’t good news for those who can’t swim. Well, so what? For those cruising along in the American economy—be they in the passing lane or hugging the shoulder, be they blacks or whites—a fair question is whether or not it really matters that some number of people are disconnected from the economy. Crime isn’t spiking, despite high unemployment. Neighborhoods of the city that were once no-go zones are filled with new residents from the boom. Schools seem to be getting better. A recovery is either beginning or right around the corner. Some might wonder if reconnecting the disconnected is worth the price.

Waste, however, is never costless. There’s the enormous financial cost of supporting these men or their families: disability payments, food stamps, prison costs, homeless-shelter expenses. But the bill runs higher than that. The jobless—perhaps not former stockbroker John Tyus or contractor Andrew Salmond, but those who have never really worked— are increasingly cut off not just from the economy but from society.

“There is a crisis in this country in terms of civic engagement,” says Anthony Rivera from STRIVE. And jobless black men are at the heart of it. “Their disconnection from the national project is a problem. They’re not even part of the community or the neighborhood or even the block. It’s their stoop, and the next stoop is a different country.”

The city, Rivera argues, cannot afford to have so many strangers on the next stoop over. Larry Mead’s conclusion that black men are choosing not to work might offend. But he does see the problem beyond its utilitarian, economic dimension.

“We want these guys to function. We want them to succeed for themselves, not just for other people. There’s a tendency to see fathers as dogs’ bodies, whose goal in life is to support families. ‘They’re just obligated. They don’t have any rights,'” he says. They deserve better. “We should worry about the fact that these guys are failures. And they feel it. For these guys not to be working is a blight on society. It’s a blight on the men. Everybody’s losing. This is unacceptable.”

On the last Friday in February, a few hours after the news about the lower unemployment rate broke, Derrick Walker, a black man of 35, was standing on a corner of a worn block of stores in Far Rockaway, a largely black neighborhood that bears all the scars of economic isolation. Several houses have been burned. There are alleyways full of trash where cars sit on bare axles. Between the ocean and the streets is a buffer of garbage-laced duneland and beach grass. The waves crash one after another.

“It’s pretty horrible,” Walker says of the economy. “My mother works around the corner. Next week, she’ll have been working there for 35 years. They laid off half the staff. She had to take a huge pay cut. She was a case manager. Now they have her up front answering phones. She’s very much behind on her bills.” Walker says he’s been putting in applications to get his mother assistance. He admits that his own months, since he left a job at the Department of Sanitation.

“I quit for a real dumb reason. I had an 11 p.m.-7 a.m. shift. I couldn’t get adjusted. I did it for a year and a half, and I couldn’t get adjusted. And being that I had a [commercial driver’s license], I figured I could get something else. But they want people with experience.” Walker says none of his friends are out of work, but only because everyone he knows is “either dead or in jail.” Meanwhile, he says, “I’m out here with no felonies, a valid license, and I can’t get a job.”

He didn’t graduate from high school and makes no excuse for why. “I was somewhat of a knucklehead back then. Being I’m 35, my knucklehead days are way behind me.” I ask him what his plans for the future were back in high school. “Try to make people laugh,” he says. “Chase girls.”

I ask him what his dream is now. “To be honest,” he says, “to get off this corner.”