ABOVE PHOTO: Dr. Bill Spriggs
By Hazel Trice Edney
Despite unresolved “fiscal cliff” negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, African-Americans should see signs of hope in a trend downward in the unemployment rate and an unexpected growth in jobs, says a Black economist and former member of the Obama administration.
“I think it’s something to get excited about,” says Bill Spriggs, former assistant secretary for policy at the U. S. Department of Labor for four years. Spriggs, who recently returned to his former position as an economics professor at Howard University, explained in an interview, “The issue is more the trend. There has been a steady trend downward. If you go back to July, if you compare last November to this November, the bigger trend is that it has been going down.”
The unemployment rate dropped from 8 percent to 7.7 percent last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the lowest since 2008. It dropped from 14.3 percent for African-Americans down to 13.2 percent. Although the jobless rate for African-Americans remain in double digits and consistently twice that of Whites, Spriggs says there’s good news.
That is that although the Black unemployment rate has fluctuated between 13 and 14 percent all year, when comparing to last year at this time, there is a clear trend downward. Last November’s jobless rate was 15.5 percent. This is a significant drop of 2.3 percent.
Despite the downward trend, Spriggs says President Obama and Boehner must take action to refocus on jobs rather than just the “fiscal cliff,” which means the possibility of year-end tax hikes combined with severe spending cuts.
“They’re going to have to get more serious about talking about jobs,” said Spriggs, who also served for 16 years as director of the National Urban League’s Institute for Opportunity and Equality until 2004. Spriggs. “I think there needs to be a greater emphasis put by the President on at least transitioning the dialog away from austerity (deficit cutting while lowering spending) to how we are going to get jobs. The fiscal cliff is a debate about austerity. It’s a misplaced debate. No one seriously wants austerity. That’s why they’re all screaming and hollering…They are afraid that the President might not blink, stare them down and force them to go off the cliff.”
The White House responded with excitement to the BLS report, which included an unexpected addition of 147,000 new jobs in the private sector last month. Economists had predicted less than half that many because of Hurricane Sandy.
“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” said a White House statement upon release of the numbers Dec. 7. “It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007.”
Despite a clear trend downward for the jobless numbers, the good news is only tenuous unless more definitive action is taken, agrees at least one public policy think tank.
“Policy discussions now and beyond the fiscal showdown need to focus on accelerating job growth today and laying the foundation for a stronger economy built from the middle out for the long term,” states the Center for American Progress in a response to the new numbers that agrees with Spriggs’ analysis. “Here’s why: If politicians do nothing to spur growth, prolonged job-market weakness will be in our future for some time. At the current three-month job-growth trend seen in today’s jobs data, the U.S. economy will not recover to ‘full employment’ until June 2031.”
The back and forth debate and the talk of economic doom causes extra stress; especially during the holidays when people’s pocketbooks are already stretched. Spriggs says the stress is compounded when the anxiety is misdirected.
Of course people who are unemployed are going into job training and even changing careers to help themselves, Spriggs says, but they’ve got to also face another reality: The anger has got to be directed at the right people,” he said.
“What people have to be very careful about is internalizing this,” Spriggs said. “People are internalizing the frustration. We need to channel all of this energy to this stupid Congress and at these stupid Republicans, who are off on another tangent.”