You may have heard in recent weeks that the economy added jobs and that Black unemployment is down. But don’t be fooled by rosy headlines: We should worry about the state of jobs in urban areas such as the Washington, D.C. region and what that might mean for historically vulnerable populations.
When the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics releases their monthly employment and unemployment numbers, it’s only natural to focus in on the national data– now at 4.1 percent. That is supposed to act as a psychological boost for consumers and workers: the jobless rate now, at least officially, is down from 5 percentage points this same time two years ago. Even the topline statistic of “148,000 jobs added” in December will be viewed as positive.
Many observers, particularly those eager to show Trump administration success in a bid to “normalize” his presidency, are busily touting those numbers as a sign of an economy on the upswing. But how those numbers are perceived and discussed depend largely on how they are spun and who spins them.
Yes: the “official” employment data didn’t show the economy slicing jobs but instead showed it adding. Unemployment, reportedly, is at a 17-year low. That briefing, issued on the first Friday of the New Year, was preceded by a buoyant Wall Street that hit a record 25,000 points on the stock exchange. No matter that the jobs numbers did not meet general economist expectations of 190,000 jobs added, the White House moved fast to leverage the 148,000.
And both mainstream news headlines, along with the president on Twitter, wasted no time pointing out a lower Black unemployment rate.
According to the BLS data, Black unemployment dipped to 6.8 percent, a 1.2 percent drop from a year ago. This is encouraging, considering Black unemployment was at a historical peak of nearly 17 percent in March 2010. By early Saturday morning, the president was on Twitter celebrating better Black job numbers, churning up the narrative that he would be a better economic president than his predecessor President Obama.
The problem with that assessment, however, is that it doesn’t show the complete picture. In fact, it potentially distorts it in such a way that it risks pushing Black America into a false sense of economic security.
Annual jobs growth in 2017 (the first year of the new administration) was the slowest it’s been in six years. The national economy added only 2.05 million jobs versus 2.24 million jobs in 2016 – the last full year of the Obama presidency. In fact, they were steady and significant job increases between 2011 (1.84 million jobs added) and 2013 (3.11 million jobs added). The first substantial decrease in job creation was in 2017.
That trend doesn’t bode well for African Americans, our unemployment rate is still near double that of Whites and nearly two percentage points higher than the Latinx rate.
And what the BLS numbers also show us is that overall unemployment remains higher than the national average in places where there are high concentrations of Black people. This includes the District of Columbia, which is still – technically – majority Black. The overall District jobless rate in November 2017 was 5.8 percent and it was a full percentage point higher in October 2017. While the rate dropped noticeably between October and November 2017, October 2016 was actually a percentage point lower.
More alarming is that the District has the highest “state” unemployment rate in the country, an instant indication that Black unemployment has not dropped.
And while the official federal unemployment rate appears low, ShadowStats.com economist John Williams still insists the jobless rate for December 2017 is actually 400 percent higher, at nearly 22 percent than what federal data suggests. Williams’ methodology includes “… long-term discouraged workers, who were defined out of official existence in 1994. That estimate is added to the BLS estimate of U-6 unemployment, which includes short-term discouraged workers.”
Also left out of the federal report: the state of the retail sector.
Retail stores continued to take heavy hits in 2017, with more familiar and so-called “Big Box” stores announcing more store closures and job losses in the coming months. Retail chain bankruptcies were more than 30 percent of all industry defaults issued in 2017. The pain of retail sector hemorrhaging will be most severe for Black workers considering retail is the second largest Black population employer. Nearly 12 percent of retail workers are Black – close to their overall population ratio. And 54 percent of Black retail workers are supporting households, according to think tank Demos, the highest proportion of any demographic group in that sector. Black retail workers also suffer the highest poverty rates.
We must watch these numbers carefully and begin an earnest conversation on how the Black community adapts to what is, contrary to the headlines, an uncertain economic landscape – especially for Black America. That is particularly crucial for Washington, D.C. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the District’s current unemployment rate is still slightly higher than it was right before the Recession (in 2007, it was 5.8 percent), and the Black unemployment rate in D.C. (at 13.4 percent) is – tragically – nearly 8 times that of White workers (at just 1.6 percent).
If we’re caught unprepared, the current administration’s active shrinkage of the federal civilian workforce – a longtime financial security umbrella for the Washington metropolitan area’s Black middle class – could be rather destructive to Black communities in the region. In the first six months of the new administration, more than 11,000 federal jobs were cut. Estimates from D.C.-focused George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller suggest the region could be bracing from 16,000 to more than 30,000 federal jobs cut by 2021. It’s only a matter of time before that trend aggravates Black unemployment in the District and throughout the Greater Washington area. The first major step is recognizing where these trends are headed and what we do, collectively, to diminish their impact. Getting caught up in headline hype and spin, sadly, won’t help that.
George H. Lambert, Jr. is the President and CEO of The Greater Washington Urban League.