At the height of the economic crisis, while Americans learned lingo like "credit default swaps" and "liars' loans," another new word crept into the national vocabulary: "mancession." This term was coined to describe a wave of job losses that disproportionately affected men. Now, while data show that the employment gap has closed considerably, major gaps remain between racial and ethnic groups. Even as recovery creeps along, it may be time to ask if the United States is in the grips of a "race-cession."
Throughout the economic crisis, the male unemployment rate soared, reaching 11.4 percent in October 2009, 2.7 percentage points higher than the unemployment rate for women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Men have since bounced back, and the difference between women's and men's unemployment rates in May was 1.0 percent. However, blacks and Hispanics also suffered greatly from unemployment during the recession, and they for the most part have yet to rebound. As of May, blacks and African-Americans were experiencing 16.2 percent unemployment, and the figure for Hispanics and Latinos was 11.9 percent. Those rates are drastically higher than the 8 percent unemployment rate for whites and the 7 percent rate for Asians. As "Hispanic" is an ethnicity, it should be noted that Hispanics must also choose a race on the BLS's Current Population Survey. Therefore, any of the above race categories could potentially include Hispanics.
Unemployment gaps between racial and ethnic groups are not new. In 2006 and 2007, before the economic crisis, unemployment for whites hovered between 3.8 and 4.4 percent and for Asians stayed between 2.7 and 3.7 percent. Meanwhile, the rate for Hispanics ranged from 4.7 to 6.3 percent, and for blacks ranged from 7.7 to 9.5 percent.
While those gaps have long existed, the economic crisis has exacerbated them, miring some groups' unemployment rates in the double-digits. Furthermore, it is clear that the slowly rising tide of economic recovery is clearly not lifting all boats equally. The unemployment rate for blacks is down only 0.3 percent from its January 2010 peak of 16.5 percent. Hispanics have fared somewhat better; their 11.9 percent unemployment rate is down 1.3 percent from a peak of 13.2 percent in November 2010. Whites, who have much lower unemployment than both of these groups, have also made greater gains, with a 1.4 percent drop in unemployment since their 9.4 percent peak.
Determining why these unemployment gaps persist is a complicated enterprise. One cause often cited for the "mancession" was that "men's" industries—construction and durable goods manufacturing, for example—suffered some of the worst job losses, while industries with large shares of female workers, like healthcare, government, and education, fared better in the recession. Differences between industries may likewise be responsible for unemployment gaps between races and ethnicities, according to Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. He cites as an example construction, which employs many Latinos, and particularly Latino men.
Educational attainment levels may exacerbate these gaps, says Burtless: "Some ethnic and racial groups do have less schooling than others, and almost always recessions are harder on folks with less schooling than they are with people with the most schooling." He points out that the industries that are seeing the most growth, like healthcare, require workers with specialized education or advanced degrees. And some groups have far more of those degrees than others. Among Americans 25 and older, Asians are by far the most educated, with nearly 50 percent holding bachelor's or graduate degrees, according to the Census Bureau's 2009 American Communities Survey. Meanwhile, 25.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites hold bachelor's degrees or higher. By comparison, 17.6 percent of blacks and African-Americans and 12.6 percent of Hispanics hold such degrees. There is a clear and strong correlation between education and employment: The unemployment rate for people with a bachelor's degree or higher is 4.5 percent, compared with 9.5 percent for people who are high school graduates and did not attend college.
While educational attainment is an important factor in finding employment, the education system will not provide the fastest route out of the "race-cession," according to Catherine Singley, a senior policy analyst at the National Council on La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization. Rather, she says, education in the form of job training would be far more effective. Most of the country's unemployed people, says Singley, are "adults who have aged out of the system, who are not going back to school." She adds, "We need to broaden the scope and think about who's already in the labor market and how to match them with the right training."
According to Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington Bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, if such immediate steps are not taken, the long-term effects of the employment crisis could be greater than simple earnings figures. Shelton says that persistent unemployment now could set up entire communities to be shut out of the job market in the future. Young African-Americans have particularly high unemployment figures. According to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, blacks ages 16 to 24 experienced 33.4 percent unemployment in July 2010, compared with 19.1 percent for all 16-to-24-year-olds. Shelton also notes that young African-American men, and particularly those in some inner cities, face unemployment rates of 50 percent or higher. Being unable to find work now is stalling these entire demographic groups, he says: "If you go into a beginning-level position at a job, you see yourself moving up, acquiring more skills, being able to work towards making more money, and planning for a stable future and family." Without work now, says Shelton, these young people are set up for years of difficulties.
Politicians may constantly acknowledge the need for job growth, but Singley does not expect meaningful action anytime soon. "In Congress and in city halls, there's a lot of talk about jobs, but there aren't a lot of ideas and concrete policies being advanced," she says. Indeed, members of Congress and President Obama are currently spending their energy on the budget and the debt ceiling. But once 2012 campaigns begin in earnest, jobs will certainly become an even bigger part of the national dialogue. As any politician knows, an unemployed voter is an unhappy voter, regardless of race.