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Biden’s State of the Union highlighted ‘near record-low’ Black unemployment. Here’s the full story.

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President Joe Biden highlighted a “near record-low” unemployment rate for Black workers in the U.S. during his State of the Union address Tuesday while laying out a more positive story about the state of the economy.

It’s true that the overall unemployment rate of 3.4% in January was the country’s lowest level since 1969, and the unemployment rate for Black workers was 5.4%, according to Labor Department data. The latter was down from 6.9% in January 2022, the even higher level of 9.2% from January 2021, and the pandemic high of 16.8% in May 2020. The unemployment rate for Hispanic workers, which Biden also highlighted, was at 4.5% in January, compared to 4.9% during the same time last year.

“In many ways, he was actually being too modest,” William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and the chief economist for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said of Biden’s comments. “We had a pretty good labor market going into February of 2020 and we were nearing low unemployment for Black and Hispanic workers, and of course that got greatly disrupted. Part of the subtext missing is that disruption and then the rate at which we recovered from it.”

Considering the pandemic’s upheaval, it’s even “more spectacular than simply saying, ‘The trend continues,’” Spriggs, a former assistant secretary for policy in the Obama Labor Department, told MarketWatch. 

It might have taken a decade for Black and Latino workers to recover from the mass layoffs seen in 2020 if not for substantial government investments to support low-income workers and the sectors that employed them, Spriggs said. He credited the expanded child tax credit in particular for potentially helping Black women afford child care so they could work; research from the Brookings Institution showed that Black, Hispanic and other non-white households were more likely to use the extra money for child care and education, without any substantial changes in unemployment levels for eligible households. 

The share of Black workers in low-wage jobs has also fallen, Spriggs said, while the number of unionized workers increased in 2022, driven almost entirely by workers of color. And even workers who remained in low-wage jobs saw their earnings rise particularly fast.

But even Joelle Gamble, the Biden Labor Department’s chief economist, noted on Twitter last week that the Black unemployment rate “remains too high.” There remain large gaps in unemployment rates depending on workers’ race and gender, with Black men having an unemployment rate of 5.3% as of January, compared to a rate of 2.9% for white men. (Nonetheless, Spriggs said, the unemployment rate for Black men has been 6% or lower for nine consecutive months, which is unprecedented — or, as he put it, “almost a miracle.”) 

Algernon Austin, the director for race and economic justice at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told MarketWatch it’s important to highlight and appreciate that the Black unemployment rate is historically low while still recognizing that unemployment rates remain far lower for white workers, who had a 3.1% unemployment rate in January.

If one were to look solely at the Black-white unemployment-rate ratio, “there has been no progress in providing equal employment opportunity for African Americans over the last 59 years,” Austin wrote in a recent report.

“Regardless of whether economic conditions are good or bad, Black jobseekers are less likely to find work,” Austin wrote. “There have been times when the Black-to-White unemployment-rate ratio was somewhat higher and times when it was somewhat lower, but the average of the ratios over this period is 2.1.”

Numbers also don’t always tell the full story. For example, Branden Snyder, the executive director of Detroit Action, a grassroots community organization focused on racial and economic justice, said that Black workers in Detroit and Michigan don’t necessarily feel represented by the more positive statistics included in Biden’s address. Detroit’s unemployment rate was 6.4% in November — the first time it had been below 7% since 2000, according to a city press release, but still higher than the national rate.

‘If you want to live up to that optimism of the union being strong, we’ve got to be able to protect workers across the board, but particularly Black and brown workers.’

— Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action

Rental prices have also increased in Detroit, eating into workers’ wages; they rose 8.4% in 2022’s fourth quarter compared to the same period a year earlier, according to Axios. And workers with criminal records, as well as older workers, are still struggling to obtain jobs despite being told that employers are in desperate need of more workers, Snyder said.

Biden, in closing his speech, called the state of the union “strong” and said he had “never been more optimistic about our future.” Snyder believes that still more could be done to bolster that sense of hope.

“In Michigan, you need $19 an hour in order to be able to afford a market-rate two-bedroom. There aren’t a lot of jobs that are paying $19 an hour,” Snyder said. “If you want to live up to that optimism of the union being strong, we’ve got to be able to protect workers across the board, but particularly Black and brown workers.” 

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