President Barack Obama will address a joint session of Congress tonight because of what many economists, pundits and politicians have called a jobs crisis. But the nation’s current employment picture closely mirrors the state of black unemployment before the recession began.
Fixing the overall jobs deficit and addressing the way that the recession has ravaged black and Latino households will require bold, even controversial solutions, economists say.
“It’s time for this president to start proposing big, game-changing ideas that might address long-term joblessness and the growth and persistence of the black-white wealth gap,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist at The New School.
A Works Progress Administration-like program could help to repair some of the recession’s economic scars, said Hamilton. It would put workers into jobs where they can develop, enhance or at least maintain their skills, and it would give unemployed workers income until the economy improves. But to address the persistent and growing economic gap between white and black households, those at the top of the income scale and those near the bottom, the president should also propose wealth-building accounts for every child at birth, said Hamilton. With interest and limits on the purposes for which funds could be withdrawn, eventually every adult would have a pool of funds to cover the cost of attending college, setting up a household or purchasing a home.
In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the gap between the median wealth of the nation’s white and nonwhite households –- that’s cash and other assets — grew to an all-time high. The median white household has about $113,000 in wealth, compared to about $5,600 for black households and $6,300 for Latino households.
“The growing wealth gap in this county is the single biggest piece of evidence that an age of equality and meritocracy has not arrived,” said Hamilton. “That’s a controversial thing to say. But fixing it would go a long way toward solving a number of other social problems.”
In 2007, just before the recession began, black unemployment sat at 8.5 percent. In August, black unemployment reached 16.7 percent, a figure unseen since the 1980s. At the same time, the nation’s overall unemployment was 9.1 percent and job growth was zero. But in the depths of a jobs crisis that several economists say may portend a double-dip recession, white unemployment fell slightly to 8 percent.
Together, black and Latino workers make up nearly 40 percent of the nation’s unemployed.