During four decades of debate over the causes of black-male joblessness and unemployment, there have been two broad schools of thought. There were those who blamed the problem on the way the economy works, especially its racial contours and barriers, and those who attributed it to the way black men behave, to their culture.
According to New York University political science professor Lawrence Mead, black joblessness is about a failure of low-skill black men to choose to work or live up to their employers’ standards when they do get jobs. “The immediate problem is work discipline, a willingness to cooperate, to be a reliable employee,” says Mead. “It’s collective psychology. It’s attitudes, and this is characteristic of poverty, where people want to work in principle. They often praise the work ethic. They accept that they should work. But for mysterious reasons, they don’t actually do it.”
Cultural explanations of poverty have a long history in America, dating back to when most of today’s Americans’ ancestors lived somewhere else and when most blacks in this country were in bondage. In his history of the politics of poverty, The Undeserving Poor, UPenn professor Michael Katz quotes from an 1834 sermon by a New Hampshire preacher named Charles Burroughs: “Pauperism is the consequence of willful error,” Burroughs said, “of shameful indolence, of vicious habits.”
Nearly two centuries later, that sentiment still gets plenty of Amens. But not all cultural explanations for joblessness are so overtly moralistic. Mead, for one, says he doesn’t blame individuals as much as a broader culture of permissiveness. Others say the rise of an “oppositional culture” among young black men, characterized by crime and a lack of work, was an understandable reaction to racism, one that has hardened to become a problem in and of itself.
White men aren’t the only ones who highlight problems with black attitudes. In the past decade, comedian Bill Cosby has made a second career for himself as a critic of the black underclass. In one 2004 speech, he said that “the lower economic people are not holding their end in this deal,” that they were “not parenting,” buying “$500 sneakers” rather than spending “$250 for Hooked on Phonics.” He added, “[The problem] is standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is’ … and I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk…. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads…. You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!”
Cultural critics look at recent history, see the civil rights movement knocking down barriers, witness a decreasing level of work by low-skilled black men, and reconcile the two trends by pointing at attitudes.
“The behavior of the black low-income population, especially men, was better under Jim Crow than since civil rights,” Mead says. “Under civil rights—which was a very necessary change of course—what was associated with that was a dismantling of a lot of informal social control on behavior, and that’s why in the ’60s and ’70s we see this explosion of crime, this explosion in welfare, the collapse of the schools. The reason why the unemployment gap appears is that you begin to see deteriorating performance among people at the bottom, who no longer feel they have to behave well.”
That’s one story. Not everyone buys it. “Part of my problem with the cultural explanation is, it’s very hard to measure,” says Georgetown economist Harry Holzer. “I know how to measure jobs and wages but not how to measure culture. It makes me a little leery.”
Holzer, an author of several important studies on the plight of black men, sees a host of causes for the black employment problem, including a lack of work experience and poor schools. But he thinks the crux of the problem is the low wages that black men, on average, earn. In a sense, he shares with Mead the belief that black joblessness is a matter of men choosing not to work. But Holzer doesn’t blame bad behavior. He blames low wages and believes that black men are making a rational choice not to work for low pay. A number of studies have shown, that compared with the wages they attract, which are lower than for whites with similar credentials, black men have fairly high “reservation wages,” a term referring to the minimum wage for which they will work. It isn’t that black men expect to get paid more than white men. It’s that they want to get paid a wage greater than the one they can command on the market.
The theory has both emotional and economic dimensions. On the emotional side, there’s a belief that young black men don’t want to work for “chump change” as a matter of pride. In economic terms, work imposes costs, like transportation, work clothes, a loss of free time, maybe even child support garnishment. If a wage doesn’t cover those costs, it’s perfectly sensible not to work.
“When it comes to wages that don’t pay enough to provide even a poverty-level income, a lot of workers resist taking those jobs because they won’t make ends meet, and that’s not subrational,” says James Parrott, an economist and deputy director at the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Holzer’s research suggests that up to 42 percent of the difference in length between black and white male jobless spells might be explained by black males’ relatively higher wage demands. Other research finds that the wages black men say they require are higher than what they will actually work for. And many black men do work for wages substantially lower than whites (see ‘The Sin of Wages,” p. 26). There is evidence, however, that improving earnings improves low-income people’s ability to work—and the experience of women who came to work after welfare reform is exhibit No. 1. “Certainly from the women, we’ve learned that when you expand the [Earned Income Tax Credit], that was part of the package that drew them back into the labor market, along with welfare reforms and other things,” Holzer says. “For these young men, the wages matter.”
But how much do they matter? “Anything that makes work more attractive will pull more people into the labor market,” says Steven Pitts, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “The question is, will it pull one person or 1,000? Will it take a dime or thousands of dollars?” And wages are only part of what makes work alluring. As every well-paid professional who once flipped burgers knows, a lowwage job that’s seen as the first rung on a career ladder is survivable. But a low-wage dead-end position offers little incentive to the jobless.
Don Guaiz, a 52-year-old who is on disability and not working, says the jobless black men he knows face the latter choice, the dead end. “Some are well educated. Some are not. It’s like a game. It’s like playing a lottery. You might win. You might not win,” Guaiz said as he waits for a bus on St. Nicholas Avenue in January. “Why do you want to do something that’s not going to move you ahead? Sometimes a job pulls you back. You don’t make enough to cover your necessities.”
Attitude problems or low wages might—might— explain why so many black men are out of the workforce entirely, neither working nor looking for work: “jobless.” But those explanations have a harder time accounting for why black men suffer disproportionately from unemployment. The unemployed are men who had jobs and lost them or who lack jobs and are trying to get them. They apparently want to work. But they aren’t. It is a truism, says Patrick Mason, a professor of economics at Florida State University, that “blacks are always the last hired, the first fired.” How come?
Mead, from NYU, still places the blame on attitudes. “If you could somehow separate [good workers] from the black men who aren’t steady workers, I don’t think you would have higher unemployment,” he says. In other words, the difference between white and black-male unemployment exists because black workers are more likely to have been poor workers. “This is a group that is likely to have problems on the job and more likely to be fired,” Mead says.
Percy Robinson might fit that description. A 20-year-old, he visited the Harlem Workforce1 Center, a city office that aims to help the out of work, on a Tuesday in January hoping to line up a new job three days after being fired from a Starbucks, where he’d worked for two years. Officially, he was fired for lateness, perhaps evidence of Mead’s theory.
But Robinson sees more to it than that. “I think it’s actually kind of because of the recession,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who need jobs, so you’re expendable right now.”
But it’s not clear that James Brown is to blame for being out of work. A 23-year-old from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, he had been working security before he was laid off in mid-2009. A high school graduate, Brown says he originally wanted to be a firefighter. (A federal judge recently found that the FDNY’s exams systematically discriminated against blacks.)
“I passed the test. I just never got called,” he says. Of his security job, he explains, “They kept shortening my hours—35 to 20, 20 to 15, 15 to 10” before finally letting him go. Back in his neighborhood, he is not alone. “I have a lot of friends who were working hard, went to school and wanted to do something for themselves” but lost their jobs, he says.
For blacks, losing a job might have less to do with their attitudes and more to do with the industry they work in. Most jobs in America have a dominant color: Hotel owners are South Asian; restaurant workers are Latino; journalists are white. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, blacks make up at least a quarter (twice their share of the population) of nursing aides, security guards, bus drivers and social workers.
The way ethnic groups gravitate toward particular jobs means that if one industry is particularly hurt by an economic downturn—or by a long-term structural shift, like the decline of the auto industry—the ethnic group that dominates that industry takes a big hit.
And the current recession has hit some industries particularly hard, including some that were far removed from the turmoil on Wall Street. According to projections by the New York State Department of Labor, by the time the current recession has worked its way through the job market in 2012, about as many food-service workers as financial specialists will have lost their jobs.
Many blacks work in food service. Many blacks work in government jobs, which have been hurt by declining tax revenues. And blacks are major players in several manufacturing industries, like car factories, tire plants, sugar refineries, slaughterhouses and paper mills. In the nation’s 20 largest cities, manufacturing is the sector that has suffered the largest proportionate decline during the recession. In fact, manufacturing’s demise over the past four decades is a major cause of black joblessness.
Blacks left the South in two great waves during the first half of the 20th century, and many arrived in Northern cities just as European immigration was tapering off. The lack of white competition gave blacks—once they had overcome labor union resistance—a shot at stable, middle-class manufacturing jobs. “However, as we all know, we had, starting in the 1960s, particularly in the Rust Belt and in the Northeast, a deindustrialization, and that’s just continued to progress since then— the auto industry, the steel industry, all the heavy industries,” says Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at NYU. “What manufacturing was left started to abandon cities for the suburbs that new interstate highways had made accessible.”
It happened in New York as well. Walking through the Red Hook Houses one day in February, retiree William Alexander says he worked all his life at a container port in New Jersey. He gestured toward the Brooklyn waterfront, where there was once a proliferation of shipping jobs for men with little education. The rise of containerized shipping, which requires wide swaths of land near the port and easy access to highways, helped doom cargo work in the city. But city policy contributed as well: In the 1940s and 50s, City Hall turned down a Port Authority offer to revitalize its ports, allowing modern shipping— and lots of jobs—to pass the city by.
“There aren’t any jobs around here,” Alexander says. “There used to be lots of jobs. Industry done shut down. All they doing now is building housing for, I guess, the middle class.”
Of course, not all the new jobs in Red Hook are closed to blacks: At the nearby IKEA store, a glance around the store one day in February found a balanced mix of black men and women, Latinos and whites. But where rugged stevedores once roamed places like Van Brunt Street, there are now boutiques that reflect the area’s gentrification.
As industrial jobs in New York began to disappear, blacks began breaking barriers to other professions.
“The 1960s is when we begin to see more black teachers, police officers and city employees in various sectors,” says Brian Purnell, an assistant professor of African and African-American studies at Fordham University. But once again, blacks suffered from bad timing. “The fiscal crisis of the 1970s hits and puts freezes and cuts on many of those sectors that began to hire black men.”
On a Friday in February, the waiting room at the city’s Workforce1 transportation job center in Queens was almost full.
Joseph Jenkins, 45, from Jamaica was among the waiting. He had been a truck driver until being laid off two weeks earlier—the first time in 18 years that he has been out of work. Jumping back into the job market has been a bit of a shock, said Jenkins, who has a wife and a teenage daughter. “You forget about filling out applications, going on interviews.”
“Most of us didn’t go to college. We just learned to hustle, get out there and get a job, take care of your family,” he said of black men like himself. “When that gets taken away, what do you have? You only have what you’ve been doing.”
It was Jenkins’ first visit to the center. It was Olufemi Michael Aina’s third. A 37-year-old who emigrated three months earlier from Nigeria, he has a wife, two daughters and a bachelor’s degree. Ironically, it’s in industrial relations and personnel management. He’s trained to hire people, but now he needs hiring. He was doing well in his home country, but his wife won a visa lottery, so they came to the land of opportunity. But employers here don’t put much stock in a foreign degree, he said. Now he’s hoping for a driving job “before I can elevate my certification to U.S. standards.” He has entered a pre-GED program. “I need a job. Seriously,” he said. “The little funds we came in with, they’re exhausted now.”
Both Jenkins and Aina had tripped over the “skills gap”—the disparity between the education that out of work blacks have and the skills today’s employers need. As the job market in New York changed starting in the 1960s, so did the skills employers demanded. It used to be that a man could drop out of high school and, if he worked hard, find a trade and have a decent life. No more. During the 1980s, the number of jobs in New York City requiring a high school diploma or less dropped by 135,000. Meanwhile, the number of jobs requiring more than a diploma increased by 300,000. Even the trades—carpenters, glaziers, sheet metal workers—now require diplomas or GEDs.
Of course, there are still low-skill jobs. The state Department of Labor says only a quarter of the jobs in New York require a bachelor’s degree or more. But the DOL also projects that industries that require college degrees are going to grow far faster than others over the next decade.
Already, the less education you have, the less likely you are to be in the job market: The vast majority of college grads in New York work; most high school dropouts do not. “Starbucks now can demand a couple years of college credits to become a barista,” says the CSS’s David Jones. “That’s true up and down the lowwage economy. Employers can pick and choose.”
And if they’re picking based on schooling, blacks stand less chance of getting chosen. A black man in New York City is 50 percent more likely than a white man to have dropped out of high school, and less than half as likely to have a bachelor’s degree or better. At the Jamaica public library near the Workforce1 Center where Aina and Jenkins sought help, about 20 people were waiting in line to use one of the dozens of computers that are supposed to be reserved for job searches. On a wire rack there were advertisements for a whole menu of job search classes: How to search the Internet to find a job, how to create a résumé, how to polish it, how to use the city’s workforce centers. Stacked in a bin near the computers was that week’s edition of the Queens Chronicle. It featured a dozen job ads. The gap between what many unemployed black men have and what employers require was obvious. The security guard gig wants five years of “verifiable work/school history.” A job as an office supervisor requires two years of college. The doctor’s office is looking for a “mature woman as receptionist and Girl Friday.” You need a car for the case manager job. At least the part-time medical receptionist ad says that no experience is necessary and that the employer is “willing to train.”
The good news is the city’s four-year high school graduation rate is improving. Among black men, it has shown the sharpest improvement, a 61 percent increase from 2005 to 2009.
But the 51 percent black-male graduation rate in 2009 still meant that nearly half of black men were not graduating on time. Of those who didn’t get their diploma by year four, about a third dropped out, while the rest remained enrolled. And among graduates, black men were the least likely to obtain a Regents diploma, as opposed to the lesser “local” credential. The fact is that high school and even additional training don’t guarantee work. Jermaine Roberts is a 24-year-old from Jamaica who has been working since he was 14, first in a supermarket and recently for Enterprise Rent-a-Car. High gas prices cut revenues, so the company cut him. Roberts is a high school graduate; he attended New York Automotive & Diesel Institute and is ASE (“Automative Service Excellence”) certified, but he never found a job in that industry.
“Nope,” he says. “Experience level has to do a lot with that.”
After being laid off from Enterprise, he passed a test for his security license. In early February, Roberts was at a program in East Harlem that provides training for green construction. By the time Roberts is done with that program, he’ll have plenty of training. So far, no job.
For millions of black men, the problem isn’t that they lack a diploma but that they have done time. If unemployment has a dark hue, the color of America’s incarceration epidemic is even darker. One in 32 black men is currently behind bars, compared with 1 in 205 white men. When they emerge from prison, ex-offenders face mighty challenges finding and keeping work.
Policymakers have created several programs for the formerly incarcerated in recent years, like the federal Second Chance Act which has provided $125 million over the past two years to job training and substance abuse programs for the formerly incarcerated. But the scope of the problem is vast. An estimated 22 percent of black men have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.
Besides deindustrialization, the skills gap and a higher incarceration rate, black men face another important barrier: They are black.
Research indicates that simply being black puts one at a disadvantage in the workplace. In one 2002 study, researchers sent out résumés with identical credentials that differed only in whether the imaginary candidates had white-sounding (Brendan Baker) or black-sounding (Jamal Jones) names. They found that the job market is tough on everybody: White and black names had to send out a lot of résumés even to get a single callback. But it was a lot tougher for blacks. Whites got a call after every 10 résumés or so; for black names, it was closer to 15. And while whites with better résumés tended to get more callbacks than whites with weaker credentials, black candidates fared about the same regardless of their qualifications.
A 2004 study found that whites with a criminal record were 50 percent more likely to get a callback than blacks with a criminal record. In fact, white ex-offenders were more likely than blacks with no criminal record to get a callback.
And according to a study released last March by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, in which testers of different races with identical qualifications tried to get jobs at 138 fine-dining restaurants in the city, non-whites were half as likely as whites to get a job offer.
Is it blind bigotry? Mead doesn’t think so: “I think there is some discrimination against blacks, but that’s motivated mostly on bad experiences with the lowerincome blacks who are less reliable.”
In other words, maybe it’s “statistical discrimination,” in which employers who know that blacks in general are more likely to have done time and less likely to have completed high school avoid hiring individual black men. This would explain one oddity of the job market: Employers who do not conduct background checks hire fewer blacks than those who do.
Believers in statistical discrimination do not dispute that it is morally wrong, but they argue that it is, strictly speaking, rational. Even when blacks have graduated from high school or college, they are less likely to have high grades and good test scores than whites. “Employers care about some of those cognitive skills, so they might use race as a signal of lower achievement,” says Georgetown’s Holzer. The idea has skeptics: Is it really that hard to find out whether a black high school graduate got C’s in basket weaving or A’s in AP physics? Get a transcript, for goodness’ sake. And if employers were behaving rationally and maximizing profits, why wouldn’t they go through the trouble of finding who the good black workers were, especially since you could probably pay them less?
Darrick Hamilton, the Milano professor, has an idea why. “We always assume that discrimination is not profitable. Perhaps that is not true,” he says. “Employers, in order to appease their customers, might be more inclined to hire a white person. And then there’s ’employee discrimination,’ which argues that whites might have low morale if you hire blacks alongside of them.” On a deeper level, white employers might want to preserve some of the privileges of being white, even at the cost of some short-term profit for their business. “You can say that if whiteness is an asset, there are incentives to preserve and invest in that asset, and discrimination is one mechanism for doing that,” Hamilton says.
There’s also the simple notion that getting a job depends on whom you know, and since many blacks have been economically marginalized, they don’t know the people doing the hiring. “Most small businesses hire people who look like themselves,” says James Sanders, who chairs the City Council’s committee on civil service and labor. “If the African-American community cannot develop small businesses, they cannot hire people.”
The job prospects of black men or other workers don’t play out in a vacuum. Job candidates compete against each other. And black men with few skills face a source of competition most workers don’t: undocumented immigrants. A 2006 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that if the number of immigrants in a particular industry’s labor pool increases 10 percent, black wages fall 3.6 percent and black employment falls 2.4 percent.
Recognizing that the findings carry the odor of political gasoline and that America’s immigration debate is an open flame, the authors caution that while immigration has had an effect, it still does not explain most of the gap between what whites and blacks earn and how likely they are to be working. And other studies see immigration having a neglibile, or even positive, impact on low-skill workers. However, “there is some truth to the idea that immigrant labor does displace black labor in certain sectors,” says NYU’s Noguera. “Basically, employers prefer immigrants of any kind over African-Americans. They believe that immigrants— and to some degree it’s true—have a stronger work ethic. Immigrants will do the dirty work. They’ll do the jobs no one else will do. They tend to be more deferential to authority.” They also tap into tight ethnic networks that tend to direct jobs to their own.
The problem isn’t really the presence of immigrants; it’s that they and black low-wage workers are in the same boat. A host of policies, from astounding rates of incarceration to a lack of protection for the undocumented, “have created a huge category of people who are now competing for jobs in the bottom of the economy,” says Seth Wessler from the Applied Research Center, a New York City think tank that focuses on racial justice.
If immigrants are competing with black men for low-wage jobs, so are black and Latino women who entered the workforce because of welfare reform. “It was pushing people into the labor market,” says the FPI’s James Parrott. “Even before federal welfare reform was passed in August of 1996, the city had embarked on its own approach to welfare reform beginning in the spring of 1995, and you can see the unemployment rate start to rise.” Welfare reform’s flooding of the labor market might be a reason that black-male labor force participation worsened even in the 1990s boom.
“I think it’s really hard to say it’s more one thing than another” causing black joblessness, says Mark Levitan, at the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity. “It’s so many things at once. There are changes in the structure of the economy that have disadvantaged black males. There are, along with that, changes in the kind of labor employers are looking for that have disadvantaged black males. There are changes on the supply side of the labor market that have disadvantaged black males. And there’s a lot more competition now from immigrants, and from single mothers who used to be on welfare.”
A key question is simply “whether or not there’s a sufficient number of jobs,” says Patrick Mason, the Florida State economics professor. “Some people take it as an article of faith that the economy will always do that.”
That faith is flawed. Even during “good times,” it’s quite possible that there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone. And these are not good times.