For blacks, the only chance

Eugene P. Coyle

June 27, 1991|By Eugene P. Coyle

THE TERRIBLE job market black men face was brought into public focus by the war in the Persian Gulf.

About 25 percent of the U.S. military force in the gulf was black, a rate double the black share of the population. President Bush ascribed this to blacks' "patriotism," while some liberals claimed that military service is their "only chance for advancement."

Neither explanation is credible when we look at the facts. For most black enlistees, military service is the only chance for a job, never mind advancement. The brutal truth is that for many African-Americans, military service is the Eugene P.Coyleonly chance for survival outside prison.

The 1990 unemployment rate for African-American males 20 to 24 years old was 20.2 percent. (The comparable rate for whites was 8.1 percent.) The official unemployment statistics would be dreadful enough, but the numbers hide the reality these men face. The Bureau of Labor Statistics definitions of unemployment are notorious for understating by half -- for whites as well as blacks -- the real extent of the hardship in finding jobs.

Another factor conceals how desperate the situation is for blacks: An astonishing 12 percent of those men in their 20s are in jail or prison. It is reasonable to say that the policy during the Reagan-Bush years is to warehouse black unemployed men in prisons, rather than to run the economy in a way that would put them to work.

A straightforward calculation of black men in the prime work years of 20 to 24 shows that the number unemployed is more than 30 percent higher than that reported by the labor statistics bureau. Historically, the growth in the prison population has been 2.2 percent per year. But during the Reagan-Bush decade of the '80s, the inmate population grew by 10.3 percent annually to about 1.25 million, including about 558,000 black men.

If the historical growth had continued in the '80s, about 300,000 fewer black men would have been incarcerated in 1990. If men in the community can't find jobs, it is clear that no jobs are available for the men now in prison. Adding the portion of the "extra" black males in the 20-to-24 age bracket to the officially unemployed raises that group's jobless rate to 26.4 percent.

This still significantly understates the misery. Both white and black unemployment is minimized by the government statistics. Not counted as unemployed are those not looking for work, realistically believing there is none to be found. Not counted are those preferring to be called retired rather than unemployed, though they'd jump at a chance to re-enter the work force. These are mostly middle-aged white men, involuntarily disappearing from the labor force. Part-timers wanting full-time jobs, even those working as little as one hour in a week, are called employed, not unemployed. The homeless don't and can't enter the statistics at all, because the bureau samples at randomly picked homes. It is likely that the homeless are unemployed at a rate higher than the housed.

The bureau itself makes alternative calculations to measure some of these omissions. The resulting data, though, aren't broken down by race and age, so that a strict comparison can't be made. It is clear, however, that reflecting all the unemployed young black men of an age to start careers and families -- men who would work if work were available -- would boost the unemployment rate for the 20- to 24-year-olds to the neighborhood of 30 percent or more. Keep in mind that the unemployment numbers here are chronic, raised only slightly by the current recession.

Against this background, to call African-American military enlistments "voluntary" is to encourage self-deception in the rest of us. An American president who explains a racially distorted enlistment rate by calling it "patriotism" is a president betraying men he sent to the front lines. A government spending over $1.1 billion a year building prisons while simultaneously running the economy in a way that fills the prisons and not jobs is a government not fit to lead.

An economy unable to employ its people is sick, but not as sick as a government that hides that fact behind prison walls.

N Eugene P. Coyle is a consulting economist in San Francisco.

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