They disproportionately work in industries, and for employers, that have been ordered closed.
We know the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate by race or ethnicity. We also know the harm it imposes on American society will be unequal in the extreme. It so happens that lower-income minorities have been on a pretty good run economically in recent years. The consensus among economists is that this trend is set to end.
A decade ago this month, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the black jobless rate hit a 27-year high of 16.8%. By May 2018 it had plummeted to 5.9%, the lowest level since the government started keeping track in 1972. Moreover, the gap between black and white unemployment shrank to less than 3 percentage points for the first time on record. Among Hispanics, both poverty and unemployment reached all-time lows in the past three years, and pay rose for all groups, with low-wage workers leading the way. The unemployment rate last month was 3.5%, and there were far more jobs available than job seekers. But if this is the economic record that President Trump intended to ride to re-election, he’ll need a backup plan.
The health scare has already claimed millions of jobs, and infections aren’t expected to crest in the U.S. until May or June. Some people will be able to work from home for now, but the low-income minorities who benefited most from our decadelong economic expansion aren’t likely to fall into that category. Many of them lack a college degree, which correlates strongly with employment prospects. And many of them work for employers who have been ordered by the government to cease operations.
These are people who hold service-sector jobs, in retail or hospitality. They work at furniture stores and bus stations and hotels. They man concession stands at sports arenas and wait tables at restaurants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanics are only 17.6% of the workforce but make up 30% of those working in construction trades and close to 40% of those in jobs related to agriculture and forestry. Blacks comprise 12.3% of the workforce but account for 19% of department-store employees and 20% of employees in the transportation industry.
That’s worth keeping in mind as we hear reports that large manufacturers likeGeneral Electric have begun laying people off, or that the airlines are drafting plans to shut down all passenger flights. Walmart and Amazon, to their credit, are moving to hire hundreds of thousands of hourly workers. That can offset unemployment to some extent, but not nearly enough to keep these vulnerable groups from being the early casualties of a cratering economy.
Nor are the concerns of black and Hispanic families merely economic. “The likelihood we’re at right now is that we lose the whole school year,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this week. That’s a body blow to parents who are concerned about child care, and to anyone else who cares about closing the academic achievement gap. As in other large cities, black and Hispanic public-school students in New York already score several grades below their white and Asian peers in reading and math. Not all homes are equipped with laptops and other technology necessary for distance learning, which has never been tried on this scale in any case. This means that the extended time away from a formal classroom setting is likely to do far more educational damage to some groups than to others, even if all the kids have been kept home.
One byproduct of ordering people to stay indoors has been a reduction in street crime. But more than a dozen states are now freeing “low level” and “nonviolent” inmates to protect against an outbreak in jails and prisons, so who knows how long the lull will last. The move is being applauded by prisoners-rights advocates, who seldom show the same level of empathy for crime victims. These prisoners are most likely to return to the same communities that produced them, and if authorities guess wrong about which ones have turned over a new leaf, it will be black and Hispanic neighborhoods that pay the price.
The White House is eager to get people back to work, and the administration will have to weigh the costs of further economic paralysis against the continuing and very real public-health concerns. But sending people checks is an election-year gimmick that, in and of itself, will do little to address the deeper problems we face. The administration and Congress would do better to focus on making sure businesses big and small have the liquidity they need to prevent additional job cuts now and to hire again once the recovery begins. The people who will bear the brunt of the pandemic need their jobs back far more than they need another cash-transfer scheme.
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