Telling the black, Latino unemployed youth story

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Deborah Douglas
December 9, 2010

Post-racial? In unemployment, try most racial.  

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national jobless rate has climbed to 9.8 percent. Yet disaggregating this trend by race reveals that whites are doing a bit better at 8.9 percent unemployment while Latinos (13.2 percent) and blacks (16 percent) are faring much worse.

Most shocking, however, is joblessness among black youths. Almost half (46.5 percent) are unemployed, a rate more than double that of whites 16 to 19 years old.

Recent news reports, however, focused primarily on overall jobless trends with no mention of the disproportionate impact of jobless rates by race, much less the reasons behind it.

“The issues of race and inequality and poverty have been taken off the table,” says James Jennings, a Tufts University professor of urban and environmental policy and planning. “This has become passé. It’s not right not to say anything.”

An exception was a Boston Globe report about Jennings’ research on the future of minority workers in Boston. For his report, “The State of Black Boston,” Jennings analyzed 2006-2008 census data and found that the black and Latino children who will populate the city’s emerging workforce will be overwhelmingly poor and undereducated and face a lifetime of joblessness and the pathology accompanying it.

Chances are that other urban areas have similar stories to tell, and journalists who step outside the local coverage bubble and connect universal dots will tap into a more global perpective that leads to richer local stories.

Get a head start on understanding the 2010 U.S. Census, which lands on President Barack Obama’s desk this month, by sussing out trends from the latest American Community Survey, due for release Dec. 14. This survey replaced the census long form. Released every fall, it’s based on an annual poll of 2 million people (one in 65 households) and includes questions about population demographics, housing and economic status.

Consider, too, examining three-year census estimates to be published in January. This data can be found on FactFinder, a Census Bureau source for population, housing, economic and geographic data. These tools can help to enhance the depth and authority of news stories and pinpoint where to find faces to put on the data.

Look for the first peek at the 2010 census in February.

Another source of rich data on employment and demographic trends are special Census surveys of urban areas. Stanley D. Moore, the Census Bureau’s Chicago regional director, says cities hire the agency to collect data between decennial censuses.

Moore, who has worked at the bureau for more than 50 years, is a rich source himself, having pioneered the practice of hiring of census workers from communities being counted. Beating the streets and reaching out to talk to real people is one lesson he can impart.

“If someone were to do a similar report of other cities in the United States, they would find the same thing,” Jennings says.

For thought leaders now imagining what Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Atlanta or even Raleigh and Tulsa will look like in the future, how do chronically unemployed and undereducated public school youths fit the picture?

Factor in this disturbing finding from a study published in the Journal of Labor Economics in October 2009: “Nonblack managers—whites, Hispanics, and Asians—hire more whites and fewer blacks than do black managers,” especially in the South. The study tracked 100,000 employees in 700 stores over 30 months.

While managers tended to hire people who lived nearby, “an analysis of dismissal and promotion rates suggests that some form of managerial discrimination may help explain why nonblack and black managers hire blacks at different rates,” lead researcher Laura Giuliano wrote.

Jennings says he’s concerned that Boston youths are not being prepared to flow into a job market that will sorely need them. According to a Federal Reserve study, by 2018, the Northeast region will be short as many as 780,000 skilled workers for jobs such as pharmacists, physical therapists, surgical assistants, preschool teachers, lab technicians, legal secretaries, office and database administrators, and others requiring college or special training.

Low-income youths across the board are getting short shrift in the labor market, says Professor Andrew M. Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

“What’s happening with white, black and Hispanic youth has been catastrophic,” says Sum, who plans to release new research on youth employment soon through the Children’s Defense Fund. “These young kids that are being brought up in low-income families are facing a much bleaker future than before.”

“ . . . Young people are being split by family income far more than race or ethnicity. They just won’t be able to compete in this new, far bigger market environment.”

For example, Sum says, the top 10 percent of black families under age 30 collect as much income before taxes in a given year than the bottom 70 percent of young black families.

“With all the stimulus talk, basically nothing has been targeted toward young people,” he says. “Nobody is saying a thing. It’s pretty much an empty suit everywhere in America.”

Next Step Tips

Use U.S. Census and American Community Survey data to highlight youth employment in your coverage area.

  • Why do high school graduates have difficulty getting jobs?
  • What is the impact of coming from a low-income family or a family in which parents do not have high school diplomas or college degrees?

Then put a face on the data. “I’ve seen so many stories where journalists are spoon-fed impressions and perceptions about a community,” says James Jennings, a Tufts University professor of urban and environmental policy and planning. “They need to make sure the information they have about the community [is] valid.”

Don’t portray subjects as victims. Community leaders and workaday people often have good ideas and solutions for solving problems, but nobody bothers to find out what they think. So ask.


  • Vincent Roscigno, professor of sociology, Ohio State University
  • James Jennings, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, Tufts University

National youth employment rates

· 16 to 17 percent of black and Asian teens

· 22 percent of Hispanic teens

· 32 percent of white teens

Black teen employment: 30 percent in 2000; 17 percent in 2010

Hispanic teen employment: 38.7 percent in 2000; 22.3 percent in 2010

High school students: 34.4 percent in 2000; 16.4 percent in 2010

High school graduate: 72.9 percent in 2000; 53 percent in 2010

National youth employment: 45.5 percent in 2000; 27 percent in 2010

Source: Andrew M. Sum, Northeastern University; 2010 figures based on data January through October. 




Your observation is well-taken. I've seen nothing in the media about the implications of the unemployment of black youth, and very little about what their educational failure means to society. Yet, these are key issues.

As Vincent Reed, then superintendent of Public Schools in the District of Columbia, once observed: "These kids are going to live -- either with you or off you."



The disconnect between media coverage, the national political agenda, and the coming national economic crisis arising out of these huge numbers of undereducated and untrained black and Latino youth ought to be a wake up call for us all. I sincerely hope it is. 

Much to think about here

Thanks for this story, and the resources it provides.

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