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Latinos, blacks take harder hit amid recession

Jobless rate could climb to highest in decades

Ysidra Frias, who is having a tough time finding a job, prepared lunch in Lynn on Thursday with her grandson, Felix Rosario. She has found more people than ever in her situation. Ysidra Frias, who is having a tough time finding a job, prepared lunch in Lynn on Thursday with her grandson, Felix Rosario. She has found more people than ever in her situation. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / November 21, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Latinos and African-Americans in Massachusetts and across the country are facing high unemployment rates that could spiral to levels not seen in decades as the jobless economic recovery drags on, analysts and urban community advocates say.

At the same time, some big-city mayors and community activists complain that the $787 billion federal stimulus package that the Obama administration promised would preserve or create jobs has not put a significant dent in urban unemployment, threatening to leave blacks and Latinos behind when the economy finally turns around.

The Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights organizations are calling for a targeted aid package to put minorities back to work and stepping up pressuring on the White House ahead of its jobs summit next month where corporate CEOs, academics, labor leaders, community activists, and others have been invited to suggest any and all ideas to spur hiring.

The US unemployment rate among black workers soared last month to a 28-year high of 15.7 percent and the rate has risen to 13.2 percent for Latino workers - both well above the overall 10.2 percent national average. Despite early signs of economic recovery, many economists predict the jobless rate will continue to climb toward 20 percent in minority communities, which historically have higher unemployment than the general population.

Massachusetts jobless figures released this week also help illustrate the dilemma: while the overall unemployment rate fell for the first time in more than two years - from 9.3 percent in September to 8.9 percent in October - a disproportionate number of jobless claims continued to come from African-Americans and Latinos (18 percent, compared with about 12 percent of the overall workforce). State officials say that unemployment rates for minority groups are higher than the overall rate, but say the sample sizes are too small to calculate specific numbers. “We’re in such a state that we need to think about emergency measures to prevent us from sinking below the surface. People are seeing the infrastructure of their lives being undermined because of the recession,’’ said Lewis Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

Community activists from Massachusetts and around the country want the administration and Congress to give direct federal aid to urban areas, including an extension of unemployment benefits, more food assistance for the poor, and a broad jobs program modeled on the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. They plan to take their case to the Dec. 3 White House jobs summit, and some are also discussing a demonstration akin to the 1968 antipoverty march on Washington to dial up the pressure on Capitol Hill.

“Make no mistake: this is the civil rights issue of the moment,’’ said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, who suggested a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign like the one Martin Luther King Jr. helped organize just before his assassination. “There is no greater priority for the civil rights community.’’

Such a campaign, advocates say, would spotlight the plight of people like Ysidra Frias, 49, an unemployed bus driver in Lynn who said she has been looking for work for more than a year. She had hoped that federal stimulus money would put her back in the driver’s seat; instead, she has found more people than ever in her situation.

“It hasn’t been what I expected,’’ Frias, who cares for a 5-year-old grandson, said through an interpreter. “I haven’t seen what the money was for.’’

The White House, however, pointed to stimulus money that paid for teachers and police officers in big cities, and that financed work projects such as installing solar panels or laying fiber-optic cable. While there are no “Hoover Dam projects’’ to employ tens of thousands of people at once, “we are touching as many hands as possible,’’ a spokesman said. The jobs summit will include a focus on “people who need it most, including families in urban communities struggling to find work,’’ said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

But some in Congress, hearing from angry constituents back home, are not satisfied.

Thursday, the Congressional Black Caucus sent a message to the White House that it wants more help for struggling African-American communities by temporarily blocking a committee vote on a key piece of the administration’s financial regulation overhaul. House Democratic leaders this week discussed a possible jobs bill, including more help for small business, increased road and bridge spending, and an extension of business tax breaks set to expire at year’s end.

Suzanne M. Bump, the Massachusetts labor secretary, agreed that cities need help. Hardest hit, she added, are urban areas and immigrant “gateway cities’’ such as New Bedford, where the unemployment rate was nearly 13 percent in September.

“Clearly, we need some economic development that creates jobs in those areas,’’ she said, suggesting more government-funded projects to upgrade roads and rail lines - work that, in turn, can attract business investment and quality, long-term jobs.

This week, leaders of the nation’s civil rights organizations - including the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the National Council of La Raza - said the upcoming jobs summit is a prime opportunity to address chronic black and Latino unemployment. Several mayors gathered at a National League of Cities event agreed that President Obama can show his commitment to cities by getting Congress to enact an urban jobs program.

Janet Murguia, president of National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, said the White House and economists were alarmed when the national unemployment rate edged past 10 percent in October, but “the truth is, for the African-American communities and Latinos, unemployment passed 10 percent eight months ago.’’

At the same time, she added, a NCLR survey showed less than 30 percent of Latinos could identify any stimulus spending in their communities.

“The help may be out there, but it’s not reaching our families,’’ Murguia said. “A rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats. We need specific strategies to reach the hardest-hit communities.’’

Benjamin Jealous, chairman of the NAACP, said nearly four years ago his organization noticed a spike in foreclosures among African-American homeowners. “Folks said, ‘Oh, that’s really sad it’s happening in the black community’ ’’ and ignored early signs of a growing housing crisis that “just about brought down the world economy’’ as it spread last year, he said.

African-Americans “are the canaries in the great American coal mine,’’ he said. “What we get tends to hit everybody, but just a bit later.’’

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who took office just before the financial crisis hit, said a jobs program specifically for cities could be the key to spurring a widespread economic recovery - particularly at a time of shrinking city revenues and fewer services such as summer jobs and recreation programs.

“People do need to get to work. It’s about restoring a sense of hope on the ground,’’ he said. Without it, he added, “it’s a downward spiral to where I’ve got five guys on a street corner wondering, ‘If the federal government is spending all this money, but the city is cutting services, what am I supposed to do?’ ’’