Though the jobs plight of rural white America has been a focus of the national conversation since Donald Trump was elected president, a study shows that in Chicago employment distress is far worse among black residents, who are much more likely to be unemployed or not in the labor force at all.
African-Americans, who make up 29 percent of Chicago’s population, account for 52 percent of the city’s unemployed and 40 percent of those not in the labor force, which means people who are not working and not looking for work, according to a recent analysis of 2015 American Community Survey data by the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank.
Local black residents have a worse jobs picture than blacks do nationally. African-Americans, who make up 14 percent of the nation’s population, account for 21 percent of the nation’s unemployed and 14 percent of those not in the labor force.
While counting the unemployed, defined as people who don’t have a job but are actively looking for one, is a typical measure of economic health, a lack of labor force participation can suggest a more worrisome picture.
Labor force participation has been trending down since hitting a peak in 2000, which could be the result of retiring baby boomers or increases in school enrollment or more people opting to stay home with their kids. But some people who struggled to return to work post-recession may have given up. And, longer term, a 50-year decline in labor force participation among men of prime working age, particularly those who didn’t attend college, has been steepest for black men.
In Chicago, 23 percent of 18- to 64-year-olds are not in the labor force, which is the same as the national average. But 31 percent of blacks in Chicago are not in the labor force, compared with 25 percent of Latinos, 23 percent of Asians and 13 percent of whites.
Seventy percent of Chicago residents are employed, similar to the 72 percent nationwide employment rate. But just 56 percent of black Chicagoans are employed, compared with 69 percent of Latinos, 71 percent of Asians and 83 percent of whites.
Chicago employment numbers are worse for blacks and better for whites than the national averages, due in part to segregated neighborhoods, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership said. Neighborhoods that are mostly black and poor tend to have poorer-quality schools, transportation challenges and a lack of access to basic resources like grocery stores, said the group, which runs workforce centers and distributes federal workforce funding to local organizations.
The disparities were less stark in the Cook County suburbs, probably because there are more low- to moderate-income whites in the suburbs than there are in Chicago and more poor blacks in the city. In the suburbs, 25 percent of black were not in the labor force, compared with 20 percent of whites.
Other cities and counties have bigger struggles. In Detroit, just 51 percent of the total working-age adult population is employed, 21 percentage points below the national figure.
Because labor markets are regional, the Brookings researchers wanted to get a sense of the employment pictures at local levels so governments can allocate resources where they’re needed.
“In a way it’s frustrating because there can’t be a politico in Chicago that doesn’t already know” that the employment statistics in the black community are dire, said Martha Ross, a fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “But they have to make the case as well to partners, to businesses and nonprofits, and data can help them make the case as to why a particular initiative is the way to go.”
The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership said its services are largely located in predominantly African-American communities and it serves more black customers than white.
“We are focused on aligning workforce and economic development efforts,” CEO Karin Norington-Reaves said in an email provided by her spokeswoman. “We work closely with the city and county to support efforts to encourage business to locate or expand here. We are also working on two projects (that) both involve developing jobs in specific sectors and target high need communities. We will likely announce those programs early next year.”
The Brookings data come from a larger project at the organization to examine labor data in jurisdictions with populations over 500,000. Ross expects to find populous areas where unemployment among white people is also high, which could expand the post-election conversation beyond the concerns of rural whites in the Rust Belt.
“If we draw the problem as only rural whites we’re drawing the problem too narrowly,” she said.
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