Job boom ripples into inner-city US

Black unemployment drops sharply in places like East St. Louis - to a still- high 7.8 percent.

The nation's booming economy is providing for African-Americans what earlier social programs never quite accomplished: bucketfuls of jobs and the hope of sustained prosperity.

Black joblessness has hit historic lows. Even the most entrenched group of unemployed - young black males and those out of a job more than six months - has seen job prospects improve.

And economic growth is starting to transform urban areas that prosperity had long passed by.

East St. Louis, Ill., a predominantly black city across the river from St. Louis, is showing new vibrancy. Banks, a community center, even a shopping plaza are popping up amid the blight. It's a story repeated in many minority neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Detroit.

In short, experts say the Energizer Economy has become far more affirmative for blacks than affirmative action ever was. "If I had to choose one of the two, I would certainly choose a vibrant economy," says Robert Lerman, an economist at the Urban Institute in Washington. "All affirmative action can do is bring it back to neutral, but not really create big gains for minorities."

And the economy of late has been anything but neutral. Yesterday, in fact, its already stunning pace was revised upward: to a 7.3 percent annual rate in last year's final quarter.

While the robust growth has knocked down obstacles for many African-Americans, others remain. Black unemployment remains double the rate for whites. Recent studies suggest minorities moving into entry-level jobs will find it hard to move up. Many longtime welfare recipients have such rusty work habits that merely holding a job remains a challenge.

And, with the Federal Reserve tightening interest rates, many economists see the expansion slowing or even ending - with a corresponding slowdown in job opportunities.

Nevertheless, "the business expansion has done more for those at the periphery of our workforce than any other program that we could contemplate," Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said recently in congressional testimony.

In February, for example, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for blacks fell to 7.8 percent. Although that was still twice the 3.6 percent for whites, it still represents the lowest February since 1972. And it's a drop from 14.7 percent in May 1992, early in the current expansion.

"The economic state of Black America has never been healthier," the National Urban League concluded in its 1999 State of Black America report. African-American men enjoy a lower unemployment rate than males in most European countries, it pointed out.

The big reason: Businesses, having exhausted the traditional pool of employees, are pushing deep into minority communities to find new ones:

*When a Savannah, Ga., hotel faced a worker shortage, it worked with the city to get fliers handed out in local black churches and neighborhoods.

*To ensure that its Dallas facilities were easily reachable by poor residents, Texas Instruments lobbied hard and donated the land for a rapid-transit station near its headquarters.

*The Walgreen Company has installed mock checkout stands in housing projects in St. Louis and five other cities to train welfare recipients as staff.

"Walgreens is growing so fast," that the drugstore chain plans to expand the program to seven more cities, says Jackie Barnd, manager of performance development for the company, based in Deerfield, Ill.

The great job magnet

Those national trends are tugging at the residents of East St. Louis. Last year, the large Avis facility at the St. Louis airport across the Mississippi River began working with the Urban League to attract new applicants.

"It's difficult to find people who are right in your area, so you have to look outside," says Michael Mahoney, Avis's local human-resources representative. "The more places you can make contact with, the better chances you have of finding good candidates."

Many other St. Louis companies are doing the same. As a result, the city's unemployment had fallen to 8.1 percent by January of this year - half the 1992 level.

"I can't get enough people in here to get 'em hired," complains Cecil Barnett, employment trainer with the East St. Louis division of the Urban League. On average, local corporations fax him notices of 180 to 190 job openings a week.

Moreover, even as companies from outside the city draw workers, new jobs are springing up inside the city. The new State Street Center mall, for example, sports a Walgreens, a Blockbuster, and a Save-A-Lot grocery store as fresh and new as anything in the suburbs. When the Walgreens opened last June, store manager Angela Miller overhired, expecting rapid turnover. Instead, she had to cut hours and transfer people because the workers stayed.

"We've been doing great here," says Walgreens employee Valerie Wallace.

While the New Economy is pulling residents out of unemployment, recent welfare reforms are pushing from the other end.

Like other states, Illinois has set limits on how long most recipients can get aid before they have to get a job. "A liberal would say, I think, 'it was a little too harsh,' " says Mr. Barnett of the Urban League. But "it's been great for minorities.... Most of those people that you see working now - after starting work, they started liking it."

But many others have problems sticking with a job, employment counselors say.

"Any kind of obstacle gets in their way, they will stop working - unless they have a support system," says Vikki Collier, employment specialist trainer at Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, a nonprofit community organization in East St. Louis. For example, if a child is feeling ill and stays home from school, single mothers often have little choice but to stay home.

Transportation poses another challenge. Many first-time workers don't own a car, which puts most suburban jobs out of reach. Even in the city, they may work late-night or early-morning shifts when buses and subways don't run. When DeJuan Lewis first started driving a van for the Lessie Bates Davis center, he had to walk half a mile to work. Now, with 17 months of work under his belt, he's moved closer to the job - and he plans to buy a car.

These new workers still have complaints about the New Economy. "There are so many petty jobs, minimum-wage jobs," says Jeffrey Paine, who started working at the St. Louis Science Center a year and a half ago. As a supervisor, he now earns $8.65 with benefits and just got a raise. But he sees himself as the exception.

"I haven't found a problem with finding a job," says social worker Tomika McNeal. But "I think we could stand to be paid more."

Prejudice persists

And, having found jobs, it's not clear how quickly these new workers will progress. Typically, inner-city minorities have less access and fewer skills than other workers. Prejudice plays an even bigger role, according to preliminary findings of a multiyear study by the Russell Sage Foundation, a social-science research group in New York. "It is racial barriers that have the most pervasive influence on the job prospects of these workers." One of its research teams in Boston found that some employers were recruiting immigrant workers rather than higher-skilled blacks who lived closer to the workplace.

That prejudice may explain why many blacks still support affirmative action. Earlier this month in Florida, the NAACP and other groups organized a march of some 50,000 demonstrators to protest Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to eliminate affirmative action.

"We need it as insulation," adds Billy Miller, a sociologist at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. "I still believe that when companies seek out employment, their first choice is going to be most often white and male. The last is ... men of color."

But he, too, is impressed with the positive changes in his hometown of East St. Louis. When he last visited, there was so much new construction he got lost.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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