Leaders of top African-American civic organizations joined the Congressional Black Caucus this week to brainstorm relief measures for the disproportionate unemployment pressures felt by black workers.
A woman identified only as Christina, one of the growing number of chronically unemployed Americans without work for a year or more, told leaders that she's being pummeled by the recession.
"I'm 45-plus, I'm a black woman and I'm at a critical juncture in my career because retirement is looming in my face," she recently wrote in a letter to the National Urban League. Out of work for more than 15 months, she's also caring for her mother, who's wrestling with stage-three lung cancer on limited health benefits.
"Other than scream, I'm not sure what I will do in the next few months without gainful employment," Christina's letter said.
Stories like hers resonated on Capitol Hill Wednesday during a hearing organized by the the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus to explore the crisis. The hearing was part of a five-week campaign the all-Democratic group initiated to address problems facing the chronically unemployed, said Rep. Barbara Lee, the Caucus chairwoman, from a district in California's East Bay that is more than 25 percent African-American.
If Congress can hastily assemble emergency funds to create a troop surge or bail out the nation's financial institutions, it can act quickly to help out-of-work Americans, said Marc Morial, National Urban League president and former mayor of New Orleans.
"We need a job surge in this country," he said.
The hearing sometimes drew emotional testimony from Morial and 17 other economic policy experts and leaders of black advocacy groups including Rev. Jesse Jackson and NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.
The magnitude of the problem was reflected in a new report on long-term unemployment from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, chaired by New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney. While African-Americans make up 11.5 percent of the work force, they make up 17.8 percent of the unemployed and 22.1 percent of those unemployed for at least a year, according to the report, prepared with figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
African-Americans with four-year degrees have an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent compared to the 4.5 percent rate of their white counterparts, the report says.
To address the crisis, several at the hearing, including Morial, Jealous and Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, announced support for a bill recently introduced by California Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. The measure allocates $75 billion over two years to cities and counties for job development. Among 49 cosponsors or supporters are Reps. Yvette Clarke, Charles Rangel, Gregory Meeks, Paul Tonko and Timothy Bishop, all Democrats from New York.
A key function of the bill under review by Miller's committee would be to steer money directly to municipalities for directly funding job creation, a recurring theme of the hearing. "Unless we can get people working … tax credits really don't work," Rangel said at the start of the meeting.
Miller's bill, called the Local Jobs for America Act, is needed in America's metropolitan areas where unemployment is concentrated, said Palmer, former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In Georgia and California, for example, more than half of those states' unemployment is concentrated in metropolitan areas, Palmer said.
"For too long, including under the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act], Washington has mistakenly relied on the states to deliver … job creation resources," Palmer said. "We need this bill enacted not tomorrow, but right now."
Witnesses offered explanations for African-Americans' disproportionate numbers among the chronically unemployed. Gaps in education and training, insufficient job networking and persistent discrimination in the labor market are key problems, said Wilhelmina Leigh, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, based in Washington.
Jealous estimated that 30 percent of publicly funded job openings are posted where the general public doesn't see them.
"It is about making sure that all people who are seeking work are seeing the jobs that their tax dollars are helping to create," he said.
Weight given to credit checks and background checks is often arbitrary. That can cripple African-Americans job seekers, panelists said.
"We need to really think about what's appropriate information in terms of screening job applicants," said Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy. "Credit checks are often not appropriate," said Austin, who also expressed concern for ex-offenders facing many additional barriers to employment. Leigh of the Joint Center sees merit in hiring ex-offenders: grateful for an opportunity, they prove their value through hard work, she said.
High on the list of concerns from panelists was summer jobs for African-American teens. The teen unemployment rate rose from 16.3 percent in August 2007 to 42 percent in February, said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Baker suggested expanded work-sharing, which allows employers to supplement their payroll with tax credits. New York, California and 15 states already have such a program in place, Baker said. Others testifying linked the green movement to job creation.
Jesse Jackson suggested that jobs in local public transportation be classified as green jobs, a move that would unlock federal funds for communities. "We can bail out the banks in the name of urgency, but not link to the neediest people," said Jackson. "The rising wave has not lifted the boat."