Black men now suffer the highest unemployment rate in the American job market, falling behind black women for the first time in the 1980s. In a report titled ``Black Men in the Labor Market,'' economists Lynn E. Browne and Katharine L. Bradbury of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston cite two basic reasons for the weakening job status of black men:
Sluggish growth in employment opportunities for all men, coupled with a rapid increase in the number of black men of working age with no positions awaiting them. At the same time, jobs in the service industry, which traditionally employs more women, are increasing.
The inability of black men to fully penetrate higher-wage occupations, although some progress has been made. They are not promoted as fast as whites, nor are they hired in growth areas such as engineering, science, the health professions, and sales.
``The labor market difficulties of black men have serious implications for the income and well-being of black families,'' the economists say. ``The median income for black families declined from 61 percent of the white family median in 1969 to 56 percent in 1984.''
The effect of high unemployment (16.4 percent) among black men (compared to 6.4 percent for white males) has led to a widening of the gap in income between black and white families, and an increase in the number of black children growing up in poverty.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported recently that April unemployment among blacks as a whole rose from 14.7 percent to 14.8 percent, while the total rate for whites dropped from 6.1 to 6.0 percent.
Although black men appear less employable than black women, black men who are employed hold higher paying jobs, including top level positions, than females. The median income in 1984 for black men was $16,943, compared with that of white men at $24,826. Both surpass the median income of white women -- at $15,474 -- and black women's income trails at $14,036.
What this means is that black families headed by males are less likely to live at poverty levels than those headed by single female parents, according to the report, which appeared in the March/April edition of the New England Economic Review of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
The growing ``feminization'' of poverty also leaves more than half the nation's black children in single parent households headed by women.
The best chance for these women to escape poverty is to get married, they say, but jobless men are not the answer.
John E. Jacob, president of the National Urban League, points out that, ``Young fathers are not taught to take on the responsibility of supporting their children.'' Many of these young fathers are high school dropouts who have few employable skills, he says. The Urban League promotes the idea of preparing them financially for parenthood.
``On the other hand,'' Mr. Jacob says, ``teen-age mothers and older single mothers are encouraged to prepare themselves for jobs so they may support their children.'' Black tradition has been to educate young women. Only a handful of the nation's 104 black colleges enroll more men than women.
However, education for black men has become much more important as a ticket to success, notes Ms. Browne. ``Blue collar jobs are dwindling,'' she says.
``No ambiguity surrounds the unemployment situation of black men,'' the authors say, adding: ``Despite increases in black educational attainment and antidiscrimination efforts, the unemployment rate of black men remains 2 times that of white.''
During the past 25 years the employment rate of black men has decreased drastically. In 1959 black men found a job as easily as white men, with 83.4 percent participating in the work force on a par with white men at 83.8 percent participation. Since that time, the study says, the percentage of black males in the work force has fallen to 70.8 percent.
The crisis in employment for black men comes between the ages of 16 and 24. Youth unemployment (16-19) among black males is 42.6 percent compared to 16.8 percent among whites. And unemployment of young black men (20-24) is 26.6 percent compared to 9.8 percent for whites. But black teen-agers experienced a slight gain in the job market recently as their unemployment dropped from 43.7 percent to 42.6 percent.
Discrimination may be a barrier to jobs for black males, but the Boston Federal Reserve report observes: ``With affirmative action remedies now the subject of heated debate, removing these educational and other barriers to black advancement should be goals that all can support.''