Jobless Rate for Blacks Falls to 23-Year Low

Economy delivers ripe job market for African-Americans and the potential to improve corrosive social problems

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Most jobless Americans measure their periods of idleness in months, even years; David Curry does it in hours.

He left a job as a day-care administrator in June and, just 48 hours later landed a new position at the Export-Import Bank.

"I stayed on top of the job market, and things turned out pretty well," says Mr. Curry, who tracks insurance claims for the bank.

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Such quick leaps have become common in America's pinched labor market. But for Curry, it underscores another trend - remarkably ripe job opportunities for African-Americans.

The unemployment rate for black workers fell to 9.3 percent in August, the lowest monthly figure in more than 23 years. This year, a smaller part of the black labor force is without work than in any year since 1973, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At first glance, such numbers would seem to merit big fanfare. A decline in black joblessness could help reduce corrosive income disparities with whites, whose unemployment rate last month was just 4.2 percent.

And some scholars and policymakers view unemployment as the leading cause of crime, drug abuse, family breakup, and other social problems. So a fall in unemployment could improve social well-being.

But it is unlikely the current dip in black joblessness marks a lasting turnaround, economists say. Instead, it will probably prove to be - as in prior instances in recent decades - just a sign of an unusually strong demand for labor.

"The job market is superstrong and with a rising tide all boats rise," says Harvey Silver, president of CORE Personnel, the employment agency in Alexandria, Va., that helped Curry land a new job.

"This is part of a well-established pattern in the economic cycle," says Timothy Bates, a professor of economics at Wayne State University in Detroit.

"The labor market is tight, the economy has done well for a few years, and these are the circumstances that always bring down black unemployment rates," says Mr. Bates: "There's a phrase, 'Last hired; first fired,' and we're in the first part of that pattern," hinting at potential layoffs for blacks if the economy contracts.

In fact, the unemployment rate for blacks more than doubles that for whites, as it has for 25 years.

Experts do not deny the gains for many black workers. As the pool of idle labor shrinks, companies hire and often train less-skilled workers. This helps integrate the chronically jobless into the work force and narrow income disparities between skilled and less-skilled, they note.

"It is certainly positive and certainly means higher wages and more job opportunities," says Harry Holzer, a professor of economics at Michigan State University in Lansing, Mich.

But some facts weigh on the upbeat figures for black unemployment. First, compared with other racial groups, a higher proportion of black workers have dropped out of the labor force.

The disenchanted workers do not show up in unemployment data because they have not sought work within the past 30 days. So the proportion of blacks out of work is much higher than reported.

Moreover, unemployment among black teens age 16 to 19 remains extremely high - over 33.6 percent, last year, compared with 14.2 percent for white teenagers, according to bureau data.

As former welfare recipients flood the job market, teenagers across the racial spectrum are likely to see comparatively fewer offers than they otherwise would. Employers are generally more likely to hire a 30-year-old single mother leaving welfare than an 18-year-old youth, Mr. Holzer says.

While declining unemployment helps bolster living standards, rising high school enrollment, declining crime rates, and programs linking youths to jobs are equally important signs of hope for the long term, experts say.

For Curry, the tight labor market has helped smooth his move from the military into civilian work. Since quitting a job as an Army hospital administrator in 1992, he has moved from school to a computer company to a child-care center.

He says his new job has staying power: "I'm solid at least for the next five years."

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