By Greg David
This article originally appeared in The City, on Feb. 15.
One in five Black New Yorkers is either officially unemployed, stuck in a part-time job when they want full-time work, or so discouraged they are not even looking for employment — suffering the worst job hits of the pandemic recession.
While Black unemployment is historically higher than that for other groups and harder hit by economic downturns, the data this time is more worrisome, according to new research from New School economist James Parrott.
It shows that while white joblessness declined steadily last year, Black unemployment dipped only slightly and rose toward the end of the year.
There is no consensus about the reasons the pandemic recession is worse for Black New Yorkers or even which parts of communities have been affected the most, in part because the available data isn’t detailed enough. But the dire numbers are spurring concern.
“This is a startling trend that the city and state must take seriously and address,” said David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty policy nonprofit.
“The Black community has taken severe economic blows throughout the pandemic, from job loss, death, health tragedies, and beyond. And COVID’s impact on remote schooling for Black youth will be felt for decades.”
New Mayor Eric Adams vows he will deal with what many call a crisis, although he has yet to announce any far-reaching measures to do so.
“For too long, New York City has failed these communities and it’s a goal of the administration to finally right this wrong,” mayoral spokesperson Lauren Bale said in a statement to THE CITY. “The mayor is committed to building new systems to support marginalized communities, as well as supporting existing programs put in place to provide more opportunities and support to residents who have historically been underserved.”
Similarly, Gov. Kathy Hochul has had little to say on the subject. She has set aside $2 billion in her budget for pandemic relief programs, although the specifics have been left to be negotiated with the legislature.
New Yorkers like 22-year-old Nassiem Ordonez live with the consequences. Raised in the South Bronx primarily by his grandmother, he dropped out of school in the ninth grade and since then has worked only for short periods of time — off the books and low paying jobs, mostly in factories.
“My father wasn’t in my life at the time and I had no one to show me how to find a job when I started looking at 14,” he said.
Out of School
The pandemic recession hit New York City harder than any other major U.S. city because the coronavirus spread aggressively in its early stages, causing mass fatalities, and because it shut off tourism and emptied out the city’s office buildings.
The rebound here has been among the weakest in the country because neither has tourism come back nor have office workers returned, nor has the mayor lifted restrictions even as the governor has for the rest of the state.
Delving into quarterly data that is more detailed than monthly jobs and unemployment numbers released by the state Labor Department, Parrott found the Black unemployment rate in the city for the last three months of 2021 reached 15.2%, compared with 6.3% for whites and 10.2% for Hispanics during the same period.
By comparison, the national Black unemployment rate is 6.3%.
A broader measure of joblessness pushes Black unemployment countrywide past 9% when it includes those counted as unemployed who have actively looked for a job in the last four weeks, involuntary part-time workers who want full-time gigs and those who are too discouraged to look for work.
Available data doesn’t allow for an analysis of Black unemployment by age and industry, but a group that specializes in increasing opportunities for young New Yorkers believes they are a key reason for the high unemployment rates.
JobsFirstNYC, which works to improve the economic prospects for young New Yorkers, found that in the pandemic 18- to 24-year-olds in New York City are 35% more likely to have lost work than all other workers. The group’s analysis after the 2008 recession also showed that age group was concentrated in food service and retail and low-paying health care positions. All three industries have been devastated by the pandemic.
CEO Marjorie Parker also notes that a large number of young people, especially those of color, have left school. This adds to the unemployment rate because students are not counted in the workforce — but those who leave school become either unemployed or discouraged workers.
Enrollment at CUNY’s community colleges, for example, has dropped 13% in the last year, with another decline possible when the local public university system releases numbers for last fall.
U.S. Labor Department surveys note that 15% of Black Americans say they are not working.
because they are sick, are caring for someone else who is ill or are needed for child care, notes Valerie Wilson, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.
She adds that while the uneven impact of the pandemic on different sectors of the economy may explain why Black unemployment did not decline last year, discrimination is also at work in the historic gap between white and Black joblessness.
“The hard thing to fix in terms of policy is the portion that is due to discrimination because most of us don’t know exactly what goes into a decision about hiring,” said Wilson.
She urges strengthening the current anti-discrimination enforcement system and finding ways to be proactive in determining bias in hiring.
Path to Work
New Yorkers targeting Black unemployment and underemployment are lobbying for immediate action.
The Community Service Society wants Adams to take a more comprehensive approach to job training, focusing not just on getting a person on job but economic mobility and providing services to support a person even after they land employment. Holding New York corporations to their commitments on diversity and inclusion is also required, the CSS says.
JobsFirstNYC calls on the mayor to launch a public works program for young people that combines service and partnerships with small businesses that would subsidize wages and pay for education and training.
“The city has a chance to create a large-scale subsidized job program in neighborhoods that have high unemployment and crime rates and they could partner with the small businesses in those neighborhoods,” said Parker.
Ordonez is getting the kind of help CSS and JobsFirstNYC envision. He’s enrolling in a program at Phipps Neighborhoods next month where he hopes to earn a GED degree. In addition to providing schooling in the morning, Phipps will help him with a subsidized job in the afternoon to help make ends meet. And it will provide other skills, Ordonez said, “showing me the proper way to conduct myself professionally at interviews.”
If all goes well, he hopes to become an EMT for the city.
“My friends all tell me to get a city job,” he said. “Not only do you get paid when you work, you get sick days and vacations and other time off.”
Phipps is hoping to enroll 57 young New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 24 who are not working on not in school from the West Farms and Soundview neighborhoods of the Bronx in the same cohort as Ordonez. But in a sign of how intractable the problem can be, it is having trouble recruiting people for all the spots, said Dwayne Brown, the nonprofit’s deputy director of workforce and education.
Last week, Adams spotlighted the inequities communities of color face and told every city agency and department to find new and better ways to help Black and brown kids. A spokesperson noted that the city funds 75 workforce programs at over 20 city agencies to decrease unemployment in New York City.
On Tuesday, Adams announced he’ll be budgeting $236 million for 100,000 jobs in the Summer Youth Employment Program, expanding the pathway many young people take to enter the workforce. While welcome, experts say it won’t do anything to deal with the structural problems that lead to the high Black unemployment rate, much as other existing initiatives have fallen short of addressing the issue.
“It’s not about what the last administration did, it’s about what this administration plans to do with the youth unemployment crisis that we have now,” said Parker.