During the month of May, unemployment decreased for nearly every group of workers—except for black women.
As protests rage across the country against racism and police brutality amid the backdrop of a global pandemic that has decimated the American economy, unemployment for black women increased slightly to 16.5% in May from 16.4% in April, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. The overall black unemployment rate also increased to 16.8% from 16.7%. The nationwide unemployment rate, meanwhile, dropped to 13.3% from 14.7% as the economy gained 2.5 million jobs.
Those 2.5 million jobs returned as some businesses that had been closed as a result of the coronavirus crisis began to reopen in May—and they seem to be going to nearly everyone except black women. “Everyone else made gains, but black women didn’t move at all,” says Jasmine Tucker, director of research for the NWLC. “That is going to be a problem for a long time.”
Tucker compares the situation to the unequal economic recovery from the Great Recession a decade ago. During the depths of that crisis, white male unemployment never reached the double digits. Unemployment for black women, however, was over 10% by February 2009 and didn’t dip below that threshold until 2014. In that same year, four years after the official July 2010 end of the recession, white men reached an unemployment rate below 5%. It took until August of 2019, months before the current economic crisis began, for black women to reach the same short-lived milestone.
Industries that employed mostly white men, like construction, which collapsed alongside the housing bubble, were hit hard during the 2008 crisis. This time around, it’s clear that black women, employed in industries like hospitality and retail that closed for months because of the pandemic, will be worst affected. However, Tucker doesn’t expect those workers to have as smooth a recovery as white men did last decade. “I don’t see women—black women in particular—coming back from this recession like men came back from the last recession,” Tucker says. “Their jobs are in industries that are going to be in low demand for a long time.”
Economic disparities like these are one of the underlying reasons protesters have taken to the streets over the past two weeks. “I can’t call it anything other than racial discrimination in the labor market,” Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, told CNBC of the employment gap.
The May jobs data may have a rosier outlook than the reality on the ground; the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that a “misclassification error” caused the monthly report to peg the national unemployment rate at 13.3%, when the rate is likely about three points higher. The bureau has yet to officially correct the data, and the racial and gender discrepancies will likely persist with higher overall unemployment.
According to the May data, one in six black women are now unemployed. Latinas still face the highest unemployment rate nationwide, at 19%, but that rate decreased last month from 20.2% in April. Women in total gained 1.1 million of the 2.5 million jobs returned to the economy in May.
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