The Racial Gaps in America's Recovery

The national unemployment rate continues to improve, but progress has been much slower for blacks and Hispanics.

By:  Gillian B. White

When the jobs numbers are reported each month, it’s easy to think of America’s workers as a single entity, moving (however glacially) toward economic recovery. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s latest report, the unemployment rate in July was 5.3 percent, which is encouragingly low compared to the height of the recession, when it reached 10 percent. It’s also tantalizingly close to the 5.0 to 5.2 percent range that Federal Reserve policymakers say will signal the country’s return to full employment. What’s lost in that marquee number, though, is that this progress has been incredibly uneven, and minorities continue to struggle disproportionately.

Currently the national unemployment rate for white Americans is about 4.6, for Hispanics, it’s 6.5, and for blacks, 9.1. Those numbers are strikingly worse.

For white Americans unemployment is back to pre-recession levels, or lower, in 14 states—and within 1 percentage point of pre-recession norms in another 28. African Americans, by contrast, remain the furthest away from their pre-recession levels. In Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, the unemployment gap is more than two and a half times as large as the rate for white Americans. In Washington D.C., it’s five times as high. This year is the first since then that the national unemployment rate for black Americans  has dipped below the double-digit mark—and that feat has only been accomplished in 11 states. The lowest state unemployment rate for black Americans—6.9 percent, in Tennessee—is equivalent to the rate of white unemployment in West Virginia, the state with the highest share of jobless white Americans in the country.

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