Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Unemployment and Poverty

[Student reaction paper on race and unemployment, with my comments in red]
            Throughout the world we live in, there are people suffering everywhere in various ways. Much of this suffering results from problems of economics and finances. The issues of unemployment and poverty are widespread and devastating. Unemployment may lead to poverty and the two can lead to suffering in many ways such as hunger, lack of shelter, lack of medical care, and other forms of devastation. In discussing these issues in class, I was somewhat surprised by some of the statistics we explored.
            First of all, it is interesting to notice the differences in the recorded unemployment rate and the actual unemployment rate. I am glad to be able to know the difference when hearing information about unemployment. It is important to know this difference in order to accurately assess our economic state and understand political discussion. I was slightly shocked by the fact that the reported unemployment rate was 8.3 percent and the actual was 15.1 percent. I wasn’t aware that the actual unemployment rate did not include the underemployed and discouraged individuals. On a more positive note, it was promising to notice that the actual unemployment rate had not gone up from 2011 to 2012. 
            Important to my professional future is the unemployment rate for college graduates. In the past couple of years, I have heard several people say, “why even go to college when there is a good chance you won’t even get a job when you graduate?” After hearing about the unemployment rates for those without a college degree as compared to those with a college degree, I am happy that I have continued with my college education. The unemployment rate for college graduates is 4.2 percent as compared to 8.4 percent for those with no college education. That is twice the unemployment without a college education! That doesn’t mean that my worries are completely gone. I am concerned that many college graduates who are employed may be employed in positions they are not happy with, that they did not go to college for, or that is are not as high paying as they had hoped. Fortunately for me and my classmates, the outlook for social workers is fairly promising, at least in the long-term.
            Another issue to be discussed is the issue of race and unemployment. It is amazing that the unemployment rate for black Americans is 13.6 percent compared to white Americans with an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent. That is almost half the unemployment rate simply because of a different skin color. It really makes me ponder the issue of why the unemployment rate is so different. Is racism so prevalent still in our country that those with a darker skin color don’t have the same access to employment? This is one important question that we as future social workers should be asking regarding employment and unemployment.
            Also interesting to me was the median wage in Sangamon County. I was fascinated that the median wage is between 22.50 and 23.50 an hour. Minimum wage is only 8.25 an hour. That is a huge difference in the amount of money made by the median worker and the minimum wage worker. Those making only eight dollars and twenty-five cents an hour must have a much lower standard of living than those making the median wage.
            In general, it is important to explore and understand the concepts of unemployment and poverty. These concepts can be very devastating and require attention by those in the helping fields. These and others issues will be problems faced on a daily basis in our social work practices. Not only in social work, but in daily life these issues cause devastating effects on individuals and families.
In your first paragraph you set up some basic principles or fundamental observations.  Yet, I think if you consider what all those taken together mean, you might make an observation that is a little more profound than what you wrote.  I think you are saying that a significant quantity of human suffering could be removed if we had full-employment (unemployment rates of about 2-3% due only to residual friction unemployment, the bit of unemployment we get in normal economic churning as firms close or open, and workers move from one job to another). Whenever a government allows unemployment to exceed this natural floor, it’s not so much a problem that “the unemployment rate is too high” (which is, after all, a rather abstract and unemotional observation). Rather, the problem is that the government is allowing significant suffering and misery, the sort of suffering and misery that is preventable. That's what high unemployment is.

 Disease, accidents, human psychological weaknesses, relationship problems, and bad luck already give us enough emotional trauma, and of course our very short life spans are another source of grief. Certainly this is enough pain, and for governments to allow more suffering simply in order to obey some pseudo-religious devotion to ideals (some might call them "false gods") of an even greater abstractions such as “growth” and “efficiency” and “free markets” and “lower taxes” is a clear choice that elected leaders are making, a choice that increases suffering

You raise a good question about the differences in unemployment rates by ethnic background.  Explanations for the higher unemployment rates for African-Americans include:

1)    Employers still do intentionally discriminate against African-American job applicants, at least at some firms.  And, in addition to the intentional discrimination, there is significant subtle discrimination.

2)    Probably more important is the fact that African-Americans, in general, taken as a whole, tend to be poorer to begin with, which is a problem easily traced back to the enslavement of their ancestors and the very blatant and often legislative discrimination they faced for five or six generations after emancipation.  Poorer people get education of poorer quality, and are less able to get hired in jobs when employers prefer to hire better-educated workers.

3)   Forced segregation in society kept African-Americans geographically isolated, and excluded them from some areas.  Segregation has persisted after desegregation and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and is very slow to diminish.  Investments made in infrastructure and job-creation have been concentrated in areas inhabited by less marginalized groups (like middle-class European Americans in the suburbs).  Areas historically populated by marginalized groups such as Americans with African heritage received far less public and private investment, and have had fewer jobs created.  Thus, African-Americans tend to live further away from jobs.

4)    African-Americans may suffer in the job market not so much by racism motivated by negative feelings toward them, but by prejudices against persons from high-crime neighborhoods or persons from areas of concentrated poverty. That is, even a well-educated African-American job applicant seeking a job from someone who is genuinely free of racial prejudices might be at a disadvantage because of a geographic or class background.  The geographic or class background might influence the African-American’s personal presentation or self, speech patterns, or social networks in such a way that puts them at a disadvantage versus an European-American with a background associated with privilege. 
    For example, let’s imagine someone in a human resources department in Springfield has a pile of several equivalent job applications and resumes.  Some come from people who graduated from a high school known for many behavioral problems, a school with a high drop-out rate, a school in a high-crime neighborhood.  Perhaps the firm doing the hiring has had some employees who graduated from that high school or lived in the neighborhoods around that school, and those employees were seen as lazy and dishonest.  Other applicants attended the school in town with a reputation for having the smartest students, and the most well-behaved students. Students who attend this better school tend to live in middle-class or wealthier areas of the city.  The boss of the firm attended that high school, and the human resources person making a hiring decision knows many people whose children now attend that high school.  Even without knowing the race of the job candidates, a human resources person may slightly prefer candidates from the better background and the better high school. Let’s say the better high school has a student body that is 25% African-American while the school with the worse reputation is 60% African-American.  Simply by looking at neighborhoods and schools attended (holding grades and the personal behavior of the applicants constant) a human resources person might already have a non-racial bias that will lead to preferences with racial implications.

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