Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The low percentage of young black males with jobs can be attributed to high incarceration numbers, child-support demands and immigration

Charles Stein:

It has been a tough job market for young people over the past few years. For young black men -- especially those with limited education -- it has been a brutal job market.

In 2004, fewer than 39 percent of black men between the ages of 16 and 24 had a job. The comparable national numbers for Hispanics and whites were 60 percent and 59 percent. All three groups lost ground between 2000 and 2004. Blacks started from a lower point and fell further.

Georgetown University public policy professor Harry Holzer supplies some answers in a recently published paper called "What Explains the Continuing Decline in Labor Force Activity Among Young Black Men?" His paper makes for depressing reading.

According to Holzer, about 5 percent of all black men are incarcerated. For black men between 16 and 34, the percentage rises to 12 percent. Prisoners don't need to find jobs. Former prisoners do.

Holzer estimates that 30 percent of young black men have criminal records. You don't need a doctorate in economics to figure out that criminal records are a huge handicap in the job market. But it gets worse.

"In the absence of explicit information about criminal backgrounds," writes Holzer, employers "tend to avoid young black men in general."

The legal system poses yet another problem for the same young men in the form of child support orders. Most states today track down and garnish the wages of fathers who don't support their children. Holzer says a significant fraction of young black men -- perhaps 25 percent -- have fathered children they don't live with. Among black men 25 to 34, the percentage may be as high as 50 percent.

For these men, child support orders have the same effect as a steep tax: They create a huge disincentive to work -- at least in the traditional economy.

In an interview, Holzer said that many men fall behind in their child support payments while in prison and then get hit with court orders when they come out. "All the incentives are to go underground," he said.

Young black men have another issue: intensified competition in the labor market. In a series of reports they have written, Northeastern University economists Andrew Sum and Paul Harrington have documented the success new immigrants have had in landing jobs. Since 2000, 3.7 million new immigrants -- those who arrived in the past five years -- have found employment. In low-wage jobs, immigrants have displaced young people of all races.

But young black men have been hit hardest, Sum said, because they compete most directly with immigrants for jobs at stores and fast-food restaurants, especially in urban areas.

Harrington saw that rivalry up close on a recent visit to Philadelphia where he conducted a focus group with employers. Philadelphia is a city with a large black population and a growing number of immigrants. The employers at the meeting didn't say anything disparaging about black workers. In fact, some of the employers themselves were black. But to a person they were effusive in their praise for immigrants.

"All they could talk about was the work ethic of their foreign-born employees," Harrington said. Work ethic seems to be a term that covers a lot of ground -- everything from showing up on time, to treating customers well, to willingness to learn new skills.

Racism may be a factor, but probably not a big one. Harrington and Sum's research shows that black male immigrants without a high school diploma are twice as likely to hold a job than their native-born counterparts.

Jobs and Jails

The Paradox of Rising Teen Joblessness in An Expanding Labor Market

Nation's immigrants account for bulk of labor force growth since 2000


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