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It is rare for every publication in New York City to give equal attention to the same news story. A report issued recently by the Community Service Society of New York accomplished that rare feat. The think tank and social service agency issued a report, "A Crisis of Black Male Employment: Unemployment and Joblessness in New York City, 2003." The data generated headlines in the New York Times and the New York Amsterdam News because it revealed the sobering information that only 51.8 percent of black males in New York City between the ages of 16 and 64 are working.

The realization that the recession had such a terrible impact on one group was stunning news. The data confirmed what black New Yorkers see in their neighborhoods: large numbers of men who are obviously not working. Report author Mark Levitan says that the response reflected a grim satisfaction that there is data to back up what so many see every day. Over and over Mr. Levitan was told, "Finally somebody put a number on something we've known all along."

Behind those figures are devastated lives and devastated neighborhoods. The negative impact of a nearly 50% rate of joblessness cannot be over emphasized. However, statistics are useless without a context. How do these figures compare to other groups and how does it compare to employment rates for black women?

As usual white men are at the top of the heap. Seventy-five percent of them are employed. The same study showed that 57.1 percent of black women in New York City are employed, which means that 42 percent of black women are not working. The employment numbers for black women in New York City are only slightly less awful than they are for black men, 5.3 percent less awful, to be exact.

It is unfortunate that the employment figures for black women received less attention. There is little reason for rejoicing if 42 percent of black women in the nation's largest city are not working. According to Mark Levitan, the more muted reaction to high unemployment for black women may be a result of the relative success in black women's economic fortunes as opposed to those of black men. "It's not great but in a broader context black women are doing pretty well, relative to history, not relative to where they should be."

It is too overwhelming to contemplate where black people should be. Neither black men nor women are even close to white men in their prospects for employment. We are relieved because black women have a few more crumbs than they did in the past and yet we are fearful because black men have even fewer.

As the report demonstrates, recessions hit men harder because they tend to be employed in industries that sell goods instead of industries that sell services, which have more female employees. In addition, the employment gap between all American men and women has been narrowing as more women become lifelong workers. These assertions are altogether believable, but the continued low rates of employment for black men leads to the inescapable conclusion that they are the least desired as employees. In 2000 when the economic boom was at its height in New York, 64% of black men were employed. It is not good news when an economic boom leaves 36% of black men outside of the work force.

The struggles of the unemployed and underemployed are off the radar screen in public discourse. The results of the Community Service Society study would not have been so shocking if the very existence of the chronically unemployed and underemployed were discussed more often. In this presidential election year the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, speaks only of protecting middle class jobs. Apparently the conventional wisdom still holds. Acknowledging the existence of poverty in America is the third rail of politics, unless the goal is to punish and demonize through welfare "reform" and three-strikes-your-out prison sentences.

White collar jobs lost through outsourcing are consistently reported. The loss of blue collar jobs has never been taken seriously. There is only rationalization of cost cutting measures and the need to keep pace with foreign competition. The reaction to computer programmers, attorneys and physicians losing jobs to Indians elicits outrage and calls for boycotts. The reactions are appropriate but should not be reserved for white collar workers alone.

If even Democrats won't discuss chronic joblessness the poor are in a tough situation indeed. The words "middle class" obviously rank high in focus groups and the word "poor" doesn't rank at all. The Democratic motto seems to be that a narrower base is best. Of course, fleeing from a natural constituency always backfires. Democrats wax apoplectic about the prospect of Ralph Nader taking votes from John Kerry. Perhaps Kerry shouldn't ignore progressive concerns regarding unemployment and other issues. Nader would be a footnote in history books if Democrats didn't expect to win while ignoring the needs and concerns of millions of Americans.

The Community Service Society is to be commended for putting numbers to the nameless faces seen on New York's streets. Unfortunately, their words may fall on deaf ears. The resurgence on Wall Street does nothing to help those who are falling further and further behind. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing plans to build stadiums for the NFL Jets and the NBA Nets, projects that will do little to help the low skilled unemployed. It seems that the only ones paying attention to news of unemployment are those who knew about it all along.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in .  Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at



March 25 2004
Issue 83

is published every Thursday.

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