Tuesday, February 9, 2010


In a recent op-ed Bob Herbert listed the unemployment rates for various income levels, and then wrote:

The point here is that those in the lower-income groups are in a much, much deeper hole than the general commentary on the recession would lead people to believe. And none of the policy prescriptions being offered by the administration or the leaders of either party in Congress would in any way substantially alleviate the plight of those groups.

Mr. Herbert calls for “bold, targeted (and, yes, expensive) government action.” Such programs may indeed provide some short-term relief, but the lower group includes many inner-city Black men, a group that wasn’t doing very well before the crash. The patient who couldn’t play the violin before hand surgery cannot play it after. So we need to do far more than just undo the damage of the current recession.

One of the problems facing the lowest income group has been facing them for some time: despair born of limited opportunity. Look at this chart:


Forget for now about how well the top 5% (P95) is doing. The important point for P20 is not how well P95 is doing; it’s how well P60, and P40 are faring, and, as it turns out, they have been making steady gains in family income. So, while P80 complains about the bonuses in P95 Land, P20 needs to know why P60 and even P40 are doing so much better than the bottom quintile.

President Obama’s election sent a powerful message to every young Black man: you can be anything you have the talent, training, and drive to be. But that sort of message can be problematic. The election shows only that White racism is less of bar to success than it once was, not that there are a lot of jobs for young Black men to fill. So, where is are the jobs that would make it as wise as we say it is for young Black men to stay in school?

I’m afraid that many of those jobs have gone to White women, especially married White women. Of course, the jobs themselves are held by Whites of both sexes. But the issue isn’t who has the jobs, but how the increase in available jobs compares to the demographic changes in the workforce. If jobs have increased, and White female participation has increased, but Black male participation has not, it seems fair to say that the new jobs, viewed as statistical opportunities for work, have “gone to” White women.

By extension, then, if those jobs had not gone to White women, i.e., if White women had not entered the workforce in such numbers after 1970, Black men (and immigrants) would have had to fill the void. Nothing induces affirmative action like a shortage of workers. Scholarships, mentoring, all of the things that go on in token volume today to satisfy political demands would be happening instead in earnest if young Black men were seen as source of scarce labor. But they are not, and they know it, and, as a statistical cohort, they are behaving rationally in response: they are giving up.

In 1970 or so, Black Americans encountered one of those nasty confluences that we have come to call “perfect storms.” Equal opportunity can only be won when a bigger pie lowers the stakes for those made to share what they once had to themselves. The expansion of the economy after WWII made possible the early Civil Rights movement. It takes nothing away from the brave people of all races who demanded equality for Blacks to say that those demands would have borne little fruit if material economic conditions were not so hospitable to the cause. But it also takes nothing away from the brave people of both sexes who made the same demands on behalf of women to say that the influx of White women into the job market after 1970 was not a boon to Black men.

And the influx of women into the workforce, especially into the professions and higher paying jobs, was driven by something about those newly available jobs: they increasingly demanded higher education, something middle-class White women already had or had access to whereas inner-city Black men had neither. The Bell Curve identified this ominous trend in American employment. Not only was income inequality, growing, but the dividing line between the high and low was was increasingly correlated with intelligence. The good jobs created since 1970 have increasingly gone to the smartest people.

In this context, debating the meaning of “intelligence” is pointless. Quibbles about IQ may call Herrnstein and Murray’s science into question, but they do not change the facts. Faced with a burgeoning demand for smart workers, employers had to expand the job pool, and when they got to college campuses, they found that the expanded pool consisted primarily of White women (and, of course, Asians of both sexes, but not in the same numbers).

The trend identified in The Bell Curve was exacerbated by globalization. Not only was work becoming more cerebral, manufacturing jobs for which a college degree was not required were moving off shore. The kind of jobs that an emerging social class needs were drying up just as Black men were allowed to fill them. Picture Lucy holding that elusive football and telling Charlie Brown that it was finally his turn to try a field goal.

Given this history, the current economic mess, standing alone, is almost a non-event for young Black men. Yes, Black unemployment, especially among young men, is off the charts, but it was already horrible for the reasons mentioned. White women are probably not going to get out of the way (although economically rational strategies like fielding only one worker per household in tough times do have an odd way of becoming mores). So what else have we got? How do we create a job shortage here so great that even two earners per White family cannot fill it. I’m afraid that the choice is really simple: someone in China, India, Mexico, Vietnam, or the Philippines will have to step aside.

And so we come back to the trade deficit. It costs us jobs, and because it costs us jobs, it costs us opportunity for social change. We need job growth not only to employ people in general; we need it on steroids to force employers to look to the inner cities for help, and for the people in the inner city to see the light at the end of their own hellish tunnel.

And it starts with tariffs.

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