Growing Up “Unlucky”: Putting a Human Face on Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Three quarters of a century after this demonstration against workplace racism, African American youth joblessness is still twice that of other races. Photo by Joe Schwartz, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Numerous options for employment abound in our small metropolitan area nestled amid the farmland of eastern central Illinois. From warehouses to food establishments to car repair shops, job seekers have many a choice for offering their time and effort. Yet, even for those of us with much to provide prospective bosses, it can seem that seeking the perfect candidate renders some of us simply “unlucky.”

Economists in the Bureau of Labor Statistics claim that unemployment has dropped drastically since the worst moments of the pandemic, settling at 3.4 percent in January. However, for a nation with an official population of more than 334 million, that percentage still translates into more than 11 million of our neighbors as jobless—only about one million less than the entire population of our state of Illinois. While we can feel good about shrinking unemployment numbers from the over 14 percent in April, 2020, we should not lose sight of the implications these numbers still have upon our society.

Structural Joblessness

Let’s run through some quick facts from the same Bureau of Labor Statistics site. Breaking down those unemployment numbers by race and gender exposes clear patterns, some which you can possibly guess. Our white neighbors over the age of 20 suffer from 2.9 percent unemployment, while their younger siblings—ages 16 to 19—experience triple that, at 9.5 percent joblessness. Who wants to hire teens anyway? (I kid—pun intended.)

Is it progress when Black rates of joblessness stay almost twice that of whites across the decades?

These tables calculated by racial categories also include Asian Americans and Black Americans (Latin American is not counted as race, but ethnicity.) The numbers for our Asian neighbors nearly match those of our white neighbors, but that’s not the case for our Black neighbors. The numbers are almost doubled for each group measured: American Black women over 20 deal with 4.7 percent joblessness, Black men 5.3 percent, and our American Black youth—ages 16 to 19—struggle under the burden of 15.8 percent joblessness.

We all must really dislike teens, I get it, but do we dislike our Black neighbor’s kids more? Maybe those reading this can now understand where the terminology “structural racism” applies. This joblessness structure seems built to make Black young Americans “unlucky.”

Are you uncomfortable with a discussion of racial disparities after Black History Month has ended? #MeToo, so let’s get past examining our prejudice of hiring white and Asian candidates for jobs more often than Black ones. We can transition to talking about excellence and success, not intransigent problems that leave us with lingering unease. But do you know who’s even more uncomfortable with this topic? Our Black neighbors and their kids having to live with twice as much unemployment as the rest of us.

Education and Employment

Zeroing in on the types of jobs with the most and least unemployment, we see those requiring less schooling having the deepest job cuts. Those industries experiencing the most unemployment are retail and sales jobs (5.1 percent); hotels and bars (6.0 percent); and construction (6.9 percent). All the while, two of the three most stable industries require quite a bit of schooling: financial services (2.3 percent) and government jobs (1.9 percent). The industry least affected by unemployment is the extraction of minerals and fossil fuels, at 0.3 percent joblessness. So much for going green, huh? As portrayed in these industry-specific numbers, schooling and higher education still help in accessing employment; those without high school diplomas average 4.5 percent joblessness compared to those with a four-or-more-year college degree at 2.0 percent.

Now, imagine (or, remember) being one of our American Black students, age 15, trying to get ready to enter the job field, within the reality that one out of six of your Black peers will not get hired. Put that next to the stats demonstrating that getting a college degree more than doubles the likelihood of gaining job security, so needing to excel at high school becomes all that more important for you. The statistics above seem even more negative for those passionate about being fashion salespeople, swanky bartenders, or construction workers, because the numbers show bankers and politicians are those holding onto their jobs these days. Given this reality, you better hope your teachers have as much hope for you as you do. Plus, hope your parents and family have the financial stability to save for university; right? Now, if they’re dealing with unemployment issues as well, maybe after layoffs from working at the Holiday Inn, or JCPenney, or Caterpillar—my oh my!

These early jobs are also an important part of the maturing process. Maybe many readers have memories of being able to goof off, fumble around, and possibly completely fail at first teenage jobs, and we didn’t get arrested or go to jail for it. Shoot, we might have had several flops until we discovered the type of work that really fit us, and we still got hired even after those early idiocies. Let’s make sure all our neighbors’ kids are offered those same opportunities to test out working in different environments, experimenting with various managers’ communication styles, and growing up without the permanent penalties suffered by the “unlucky.”

Whether future generations of young Americans choose to pursue education after high school or not, we should be able to extend employment opportunities equally among entry-level applicants under the age of 20. Certainly the issue does not have a straight-forward solution, since a lot has to do with where jobs are located in relation to where neighborhoods of mostly white or mostly Black Americans live. Which, if you have ever paid attention to Black History Month, has much to do with something deeply embedded in America’s history: segregation. With decades and centuries of “separate, but equal” communities developing across the nation, does it surprise anyone that some neighborhoods would have more educational and employment opportunities than others? Remember that money we complain about giving away to the government on a regular basis . . . taxes? You can’t get better jobs without better schools, and you can’t get better schools without a better tax base, which requires, you guessed it, better jobs. Think you’d ever be thankful for taxes?

The US has tremendous labor market diversity, but so far we can only imagine how that might look in the boardroom. (Bureau of Labor illustration, not actual boardroom photo)

Now, that’s quite simplified. If you want more, try an economics textbook. But unfortunately, racism remains a factor even when Black Americans become leaders and politicians. That’s when businesses start to get squeamish and relocate investments. That lowers tax revenues, which impacts the schools, creating less prepared youth for those entry-level jobs.

Let’s Have More Become “Lucky”

See where this article is headed? Hundreds of years of segregation have created a deep rut in our American soil that well-intentioned laws from the 1960s and ’70s cannot simply erase—that rut is called “structural racism”—and this has been an article on critical race theory. Just kidding! If you want to study that, sign up for the Advanced Placement African American Studies course, still taught in Illinois (but not in Florida).

Hopefully you are now understanding the importance of reminding our neighbors (or, ourselves), without fear or hesitation, that Black lives do matter. This important work has really only just begun. We all still need to lend a hand so that every American that cares about our shared future can prosper fairly, and grow up lucky indeed!

Owen (a pen-name) grew up in the Chicagoland suburbs, has traveled over three continents, and changed career paths several times, but has continued writing about his experience as a gay American since middle school. Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in library and information science online from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he hopes to end up in libraries or museums somehow . . . via his writings, his paintings, his career, or all three.

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