Double trouble

A white person with a criminal record is more likely to get a job than a black person who doesn’t have one. It’s just one of the contributors to the high unemployment rate for black people nationally and in Illinois.

According to the latest unemployment estimates, released in March, the national unemployment rate jumped to 8.5 percent, the highest in more than two decades, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and The Associated Press. The rate, however, for black people was 13.3 percent, according to the bureau.

The same group that has always been hit hardest in Illinois remains African Americans. The Chicago Reporter analyzed nearly three decades of unemployment statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and found:

* In Illinois, black people have had the highest unemployment rates since 1981, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began separately reporting black, Hispanic and other racial minority groups.

* The unemployment rate was 6.5 percent overall last year in Illinois, but 12.1 percent for black people; black men had the highest, 14 percent.

* It’s been worse. In 1982, more than one in four black men in the labor force in Illinois were unemployed, as their unemployment rate hit 29.2 percent.

* Since 2006, the rate between black and white men has narrowed, but increased between black and Latino men. In 2008, the unemployment rate for white men was 6 percent, compared with 14 percent for black men and 5.9 percent for Latino men–”the first time Latino men had the lowest unemployment rate.

* The lowest unemployment rate recorded for black people in Illinois was 9.4 percent, slightly lower than the highest rate recorded for white people, which was 9.6 percent.

Princeton University sociology professor Devah Pager studied unemployment between black and white people to determine whether inequities existed. Her study–” conducted in Milwaukee in 2001 and published in 2003–” included four equally qualified job candidates, two black and two white. The testers were similar in physical appearance and style of self-presentation. The testers applied for jobs at 350 companies. The individuals of matching race would alternate claims of having been previously convicted of a felony–”cocaine possession with intent to distribute.

Pager’s results showed a disparity in callbacks by employers when variables were limited to only race. The effect of a criminal record proved to be 40 percent more detrimental to black candidates than their white counterparts. A white applicant with a felony record was called back by employers 17 percent of the time versus a rate of just 14 percent for a black candidate with no record at all.

“Anecdotally, that’s always been our perception. This study just kind of verified it,” said Robert Wordlaw, executive director of the Chicago Jobs Council. “It’s amazing what we still continue to accept.”

Pager said the results indicate that race is a widely deployed “screening device,” because possible secondary factors often associated with race, such as educational background and interpersonal skills, were controlled in her study.

Race is often used in low-wage labor markets that see a large number of applicants. These employers have more incentive to find easy ways to differentiate between candidates before they spend time interviewing and hiring them.

With an increased number of unemployed individuals overall, the figures from the study may become even more severe. “During times of economic recession, especially of the magnitude that we’re seeing today, we would expect that these are the groups that are going to be virtually completely shut out of formal labor opportunities,” Pager said.

Groups like the Chicago Urban League are creating programs to try and reverse this trend. A new initiative aims to eliminate at least one barrier that has traditionally placed black people at a disadvantage in gaining employment: transportation.

Cheryl Freeman Smith, director of workforce development and diversity at the Chicago Urban League, said that jobs are still out there, just not necessarily in the location or of the skill set of her community members, many which are from the South Side.

The group is focusing on training and eliminating transportation as a barrier. It is assessing the requests of employers and creating customized training sessions based on those requests. A collaboration with PACE will make it possible for clients to work jobs in suburbs such as Bolingbrook, Aurora, Naperville, Schaumburg and Frankfort, an area that is particularly difficult for South Side locals to travel to that has a great need for fork-lift operators.

If Chicago Urban League clients buy a monthly bus pass with PACE, a PACE van will pick the client up wherever public transit ends and take them directly to their place of employment, regardless of location.

The program hasn’t started yet but is in the process of being developed and deployed. In addition, with green initiatives and federal stimulus money on the way, Freeman Smith said her organization is preparing low-wage and lowskill workers to take advantage of an expected influx of weatherization and construction jobs within the green movement.

Freeman Smith said it is taking significantly more time today to match the past successes of her job training and placement program. The heightened difficulty to find low-skilled jobs plus a steep increase in the program’s demand–” Freeman Smith had to cut off March enrollment when 855 people registered, compared with an average of about 405 per month–”account for the challenges facing the Chicago Urban League and similar organizations. “We’ve been able to get creative,” Freeman Smith said. “If there’s a job and the person has the skill set, we shouldn’t let transportation be the limiter.”

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