The exact unemployment rate is a rather difficult number to determine. After all, there are various standards for what counts as being unemployed and the methods used to gather data are subject to numerous problems. However, it it obvious enough that the economic downturn has increased unemployment in the United States.
As I write this, the estimated unemployment rate is about 8.5%. This is the national average and like all averages, it tends to conceal more than it reveals. So, to get a clearer picture of what is really going on, it is necessary to get beyond the average and see what is happening in the specifics.
Another specific is gender: the unemployment rate is higher among men than women. This is due, in large part, to the distinction between the sort of jobs that are dominated by men and those that are dominated by women. For example, construction jobs tend to be male dominated and the construction industry has taken a severe hit.
A third specific is education. The unemployment rate of those who have a college degree is only 4.3% compared to 13.3% for those who lack even a high school education. This is hardly surprising: jobs that require college degrees tend to be more secure and those who are college educated have a broader range of opportunities. For example, a person with a college degree can get jobs that require less than a college degree (although they can face the challenge of being over-educated for the position). In contrast, someone who lacks a high school degree will be very limited in his employment opportunities.
As has long been the case, getting a college degree is your best bet in terms of getting and keeping a job. Unfortunately, colleges and universities are suffering budget woes and hence tuition will increase as aid decreases. However, there is still a considerable amount of money out there, especially for female and minority students-you just have to look harder for it these days.
As an aside, some people have asked me if my students have become more serious about their studies. After all, the consequences of not getting a college degree have become even more serious and there will be greater competition among those seeking jobs. Interestingly, students have voiced some concerns about the economy, but the level of effort seems to be unchanged. Statistically, the grades are on par with the grades of previous years. This might change if the economic downturn continues. Also, more people might decide to return to college and returning students are generally much more serious than “traditional” students.
Race is also a factor in unemployment. For example, only about 2.3% of white college graduates were unemployed in the final days of 2008. In contrast, 13.3% of African-Americans were unemployed as were 11.4% of Hispanics.
While it might be tempting to immediately and simply blame racism for the disparity, it is worth undertaking an analysis of the difference in terms of other factors as well.
One factor is the difference in the nature of the employment. For example, Hispanics are commonly employed in the construction field and that field is doing relatively poorly these days. Hence, there would tend to be more unemployed Hispanics than there would be unemployed white college graduates.
Naturally, it can be contended that the distinction in employment is at least partially the result of racism or factors that involve race. For example, it could be argued that Hispanics and blacks are in job that are more vulnerable because most of the more secure jobs are taken by whites. It could also be argued that race is a factor in who gets let go first-perhaps it is the case that blacks and Hispanics would be more likely to be fired first when a company starts getting into trouble. It would, of course, take further investigation to see if racism is a significant factor in the differences in unemployment figures. After all, a distinction between ethnic groups need not automatically entail that racism is a factor.
Another factor is education. The percentage of whites with college degrees is higher than the percentage of blacks and Hispanics with college degrees. Given that people with college degrees are less likely to be unemployed, this would contribute to the disparity.
This does, of course, raise the question as to why there is a disparity in education and one possible explanation is racism. As such, this specific disparity would be indirectly explained by racism: racism leads to a disparity in education which leads to a disparity in employment.
Of course, there is the fact that the unemployment rate for the college educated is 4.3% while that for white folks with a college degree is 2.3%. In this case, having a college degree cannot be the factor that explains the difference-there would need to be some other factor or factors (including chance, of course).
One possible factor is race. Perhaps white college graduates are able to acquire more secure jobs or are less likely to be let go because of their race. Or there may be other factors that are connected to race.
It is, of course, important to not simply assume that race or racism are the sole factors. There might well be other factors that help explain some of the disparity. For example, there might be a freely chosen employment preferences that are a factor. Perhaps whites are somewhat more inclined to seek employment in fields that have been, by a matter of luck, hit less hard by the economic downturn. Or perhaps location is a factor-perhaps the areas that have been hit hardest have fewer white folks than areas that were hit less hard.
Overall, it does seems reasonable to believe that race and racism are contributing factors to the disparity. However, it should not be assumed that these are the only factors. After all, in order to fix the economic problems we need to have a clear picture of what is causing the problem and getting such a picture requires considering all reasonable possibilities.