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Jobless Rate Falls For Blacks, But It's Not Good News Yet

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The labor market continues its recovery; the economy added 162,000 jobs in July and pushed the unemployment rate to a 4.5-year low. After a string of bad news, things seem to be to turning around for African-American workers, too.

"The operative word is growth," says Bill Rodgers, an economist at Rutgers University.

Rodgers is encouraged by the falling unemployment rate. This month it went down to 7.4 percent. Unlike past reports where people were leaving the labor force — which can also cause the numbers to fall — it looks like the unemployment rate fell because people are getting jobs.

That's the average of what Americans are experiencing, however.

"If you're African-American, if you're a young millennial, if you're a person over 50," he says, "You're living a very different story." The unemployment rate for those groups remains high; the rate for blacks is double what it is for whites.

Steady growth is beginning to show up for black workers. The jobless rate for African-Americans fell from 13.7 percent to 12.6 percent this past month.

Yet part of the reason for that drop is African-Americans who are taking jobs at the lower end of the pay scale.

On a warm weekday morning at the Chicago Urban League, a group of 40 job seekers of all ages showed up for an orientation for the Urban League's Workforce Development Program. The young man leading the class had recently been unemployed for seven months.

"Nobody called me back," Kermit Collins says. "I filled out 20-30 applications a day via Internet. I did the follow-up call. I did the protocol. I maybe went on three or four interviews. It wasn't my time to have employment, I should say.
I came here for more help."

Collins, who is a college graduate, was able finally to get a job in keeping with his skills. His boss, Clayton Pryor, says Collins is lucky.

Pryor, who is also the head of the Urban League's Workforce development program, says a lot of workers — especially older African-Americans — have to take jobs they're overqualified for. The jobs that were traditionally set aside for youths — bagger, cashier or entry-level positions — are now being filled by people who are underemployed or otherwise need those jobs to make ends meet.

"Everyone is, unfortunately, sort of shifting out of the middle to either the lower-paying or the very high end," says Linda Barrington, a labor economist at Cornell University. "So we're seeing this hollowing-out of the middle as this recovery continues."

A lot more needs to be done to get the unemployment rate to fall significantly for black workers, Barrington says. There needs to be much more job creation, and she says it has to be sustained for many years.

"We have to get the education rates comparable across different populations," she says. "We have to get people trained and interested in science and technology jobs — and then we have to come back to these questions of bias and prejudice."

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