The unemployment rate for Black Americans reached a historic low in Friday’s jobs report but is still 1.5 percentage points higher than the unemployment rate for the workforce overall.
With the Fed raising interest rates in response to inflation and putting service-sector and lower-paying jobs in its crosshairs, economic barriers to maximum employment remain in place for many of the most vulnerable segments of the working population.
That’s especially true for the disproportionately high number of Black Americans with criminal records, who can be shut out of the job market even after completing their sentences in ways ranging from the subtle and manipulative to the downright dehumanizing.
The most recent definitive study published in 2017 by the National Library of Medicine found that fully a third of Black men have a felony conviction.
And advocates working to reincorporate criminally convicted people back into society and the wider economy say any legislative efforts to expand the workforce need to start domestically.
“When I hear about a ‘labor shortage,’ my blood boils, because I know people right now looking for jobs,” Jay Jordan, national director of Time Done, a group that helps people with convictions find jobs and housing to get their lives back on track.
“I know 30,000 people in Florida like this right now, and most all of them are saying, ‘I can’t find a home,’ or ‘I’m working at a part time job but I’m scared I’m going to lose it if they find out about my record,’” Jordan said. “Folks are enduring horrible labor conditions.”
Ready and willing to work but locked out anyway
Terrence Stewart, a middle-aged Black man who served two years in prison in Los Angeles County on drug charges and then went immediately to college, told The Hill in an interview that he hit a brick wall as soon as he started looking for work.
“I started realizing how hard it was to get a job, even in simple places like McDonald’s and stuff of that nature. It was really, really starting to get complicated on how to get a job,” he said, adding that the requirement to disclose his criminal conviction to employers was making his job search demoralizing.
Stewart, a father of two with a master’s degree in higher education policy, had an even more difficult time finding housing, moving from one roach-infested apartment to another in Moreno Valley, California, where he said large wood rats would chew holes in the wall.
“Because I had a record, they treated me as if I’d better be happy that I got a place to live,” he said.
Black unemployment has fallen, but a gap still persists
Friday’s jobs report showed the unemployment rate tick down to 3.5 percent from 3.6 percent as the economy added 236,000 jobs in March.
The unemployment rate for Black workers dropped to 5 percent from 5.7 percent, or about 1.1 million people — the lowest rate on record, according to data compiled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Earlier this month, speaking with Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell confirmed the central bank’s projections that Black unemployment would rise this year by 2.3 percent, while White unemployment would increase by 0.9 percent.
He said this was due to factors “embedded” in the U.S. economy but did not provide further details.
“There’s a persistent gap between Black and White unemployment,” Powell said. “When unemployment goes up quickly in a recession, it goes up much faster for African Americans. When the economy grows again it goes down faster. That’s somehow embedded in our economy.”
Job creation during the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and the enduring strength of the U.S. labor market have confused economists and been a point of pride for President Biden, who has frequently boasted about it.
“We’ve created 12.6 million jobs since I took office. The unemployment rate is close to the lowest it has been in more than 50 years and a record low for African Americans,” the White House said in a statement on Friday.
A labor shortage leaves out many workers looking for a job
At the same time, business managers have been saying the strong job market represents a labor shortage and that the government should start importing more cheap labor from abroad through immigration legislation.
“We hear every day from our member companies — of every size and industry, across nearly every state — they’re facing unprecedented challenges trying to find enough workers to fill open jobs,” Stephanie Ferguson, an employment policy advocate with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business lobby, wrote on Friday.
“Right now, the latest data shows that we have over 10 million job openings in the U.S.—but only 5.7 million unemployed workers,” she wrote.
Here’s how policymakers have failed many Black Americans
One of the reasons labor conditions for people with criminal records can be so bad is that not much is actually known about them as a segment of the population, which makes it difficult for lawmakers to design laws and policies that serve their needs.
Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute called it a “blind spot in U.S. national statistics” in a 2019 statement before the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee.
That same study published in 2017 by the National Library of Medicine, which only has data through 2010, found that Black Americans are five times more likely to have a felony than non-Black Americans.
“[Three] percent of the total U.S. adult population and 15 percent of the African American adult male population has ever been to prison; people with felony convictions account for 8 percent of all adults and 33 percent of the African American adult male population,” University of Georgia sociologist Sarah Shannon and her co-authors wrote.
Kevin Dolphin, a job placement specialist and counselor for people with convictions in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who has himself been in and out of prison, told the The Hill he has seen many similar cases of people with criminal records being shut out of the job market.
“I see this every day, I do a lot of field work,” Dolphin said. “Many of these people are not going to be able to get jobs because on their applications a lot of things are being held against them.”