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Business & Economy

Los Angeles sees job growth, but African Americans still struggle

A jobs fair on Los Angeles sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. African American unemployment in the L.A. was second only to Las Vegas in severity in 2011.
A jobs fair on Los Angeles sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. African American unemployment in the L.A. was second only to Las Vegas in severity in 2011.
Robyn Beck

The University of Redlands Institute of Spatial Economic Analysis (ISEA), part of the business school, has just released a study showing that the unemployment situation is improving in Los Angeles County, as well as in other areas of California. However, ISEA call the improvement "patchy." Obviously, with unemployment in California and the L.A. region running significantly higher than at the national level, any progress is welcome progress.

But for African Americans in L.A., modest improvement is cold comfort. According to a report released earlier this month by the Economic Policy Institute, authored by Algernon Austin, African American unemployment increased in the L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana area by 1.8 percent between 2010 and 2011 — to 21.1 percent from 18.3 percent. It may very well have declined since the beginning of 2012, but the fact remains: black unemployment in the L.A. region is running much higher than the national black unemployment rate, which actually rose to 14.4 percent in June from 13.6 percent in May. And it's running nearly three times the national rate, which is currently at 8.2 percent.

I spoke with Austin, who is EPI's Director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program, earlier this month, at about the time that the disappointing June jobs numbers came out for the Labor Department. Last week, we got government jobs data for California, and the news was relatively good — almost half of the jobs added in the U.S. in June were added in California — so I was able to revisit out conversation.

"We know that blacks experience higher unemployment nationally," he said. How much higher? Try two to two-and-half times higher than whites, on average. Austin said this is due to a number of factors, including lower education levels — a critical factor, as I've written — and the overall younger age of the black population (the unemployment rate is higher among the young than it is among older workers).

The L.A. area's black unemployment is at near-Depression levels, but it's not as bad as the metropolitan area with highest level of unemployment for that group: Las Vegas, at 23 percent in 2011. This was a major reversal of the pre-financial crisis trend, which saw Las Vegas becoming a very good job market for blacks. But Austin thinks the trend could be restored.

And if there's hope for Las Vegas, there's hope for L.A. "I'm certain the unemployment rate can be brought down significantly," he said. "We can create jobs and we know where the needs are, so we need to create jobs that are targeted to high unemployment communities."

For Austin, this won't happen without government support, something that's difficult to come by, given the current gridlocked state of politics in Washington. As he wrote in the report: "While the country as a whole needs the federal government to provide more economic stimulus, African Americans—who currently experience the highest unemployment rates among America’s major racial and ethnic groups—are especially in need of such assistance."

EPI is a think tank with a unique focus on middle- and low-income workers and the issues they face, which in the sluggish recovery that we've endured since the financial crisis are considerable. For African Americans, however, the EPI and Austin are confronting something more significant: an employment crisis in the black community — a crisis that has hit L.A. and hit it hard.

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