“America is coming back,” President Obama declared late last month, touting strong job creation and rising wages. “We’ve risen from recession.” But for Ferguson, Missouri – and black America as a whole – the recovery still hasn’t come.
“Black unemployment rates are still at the height of the national unemployment rates during the Great Recession,” the Center for Popular Democracy’s Connie Razza told msnbc. “We’re still in a recession in black America.”
Indeed, while American unemployment is down to 5.5%, black unemployment is at 10.4%. While wages have risen over the last 15 years by 45 and 48 cents for Latino and white workers, respectively, they’ve fallen 44 cents for black workers, according to a study produced by Razza at the left-leaning organization. The net wealth of African-American families, too, is hurting. “As the wealth of the other groups is stabilizing in the wake of the recession, the wealth of the African-American community is declining,” Razza added.
Blacks have long faced unemployment rates that are double those of white workers – according to Pew, it’s been that way since 1954 – but sources say the recession has hurt black America, and the St. Louis region, particularly hard. “It’s not just a recession of jobs, it’s a recession of income; it’s a recession of wealth in the sense that a whole lot of homes in Ferguson are still under water. It’s a three-way disaster for people in that part of St. Louis county,” Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told msnbc. “In places like Ferguson, it’s not coming back quickly.
The most recent racial employment breakdown indicates that Missouri’s problems may be worse than the rest of the country's, too. In Missouri, black unemployment was 15.7% in the fall of 2014 -- triple the state’s 4.5% white unemployment at the time.
“It’s not just unemployment,” Robertson added. “It’s the poor wages, it’s the under-employment, it’s the part-time work.”
And economic inequality is fueling the protests and activist movement, sources said. “There’s a real sense of despair especially for those young folks. You just don’t have the economic opportunities for young people. Especially young people coming out of sub-standard school districts … not having the tools prepared for the economy,” Ferguson activist Umar Lee told msnbc. “And then there’s a shortage of jobs, leaving young people at a disadvantage, and so they just drop out.”
“That’s the driving force, we believe,” former state Sen. Maida Coleman told msnbc. She’s heading up Gov. Jay Nixon’s Office of Community Engagement, a state office formed in the wake of August's protests to focus on low-income and minority communities. “What’s happening now is that we see a real need to address these high levels of unemployment, just as we are addressing education,” Coleman said. “The hopelessness needs to be addressed.”
But the problem extends beyond Ferguson; when there are jobs to be had, black Americans struggle to get hired.
A 2013 study found that black college grads had twice the unemployment rate of white college grads and that racial inequality actually grew during the recovery. A 2014 study by nonpartisan education and economic advocacy group the Young Invincibles found that black workers need college credit to compete with white high school drop-outs thanks to racial discrimination.
Getting an interview may be half the battle, too. A 2003 study found that very white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews than a very black-sounding name.
For these reasons, Razza and the Center for Popular Democracy are urging the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low. The Fed had vowed to keep rates low until employment dipped below 6.5% and the recovery came in earnest, but Razza argued that the country needs to be closer to “full employment”—that is there are close to the same number of jobs as people who want to work—before the Fed can really stop intervening. “The fact that black Americas are still experiencing a recession is really ... the canary in the coal mine of the recovery,” she said
Amanda Sakuma contributed reporting from Ferguson, Missouri.