Why Is the Black Unemployment Rate So High?

It's not just that a greater share of African Americans are out of work. It's also that they continue to seek jobs for longer than whites do.
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Waiting to enter a job fair in New York (Reuters)

Last month, the unemployment rate for white Americans was 5.4 percent. For black Americans, it was more than twice that, at 11.5. Why?

Writing in The GuardianJana Kasperkevic points to a compelling theory advanced by Valerie Wilson at the Economic Policy Institute. Black unemployment is high, Wilson suggests, not only because black joblessness is high (for reasons well documented in Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent Atlantic cover story), but because black people are more resilient when it comes to sticking to their job search.

The key to understanding Wilson's point is knowing that unemployment doesn't measure the number of people who are, well, "unemployed" in a conventional sense of the word—without a job. What the unemployment rate measures is how many people are actively looking for work. If someone gives up on his or her search, he or she is no longer counted as unemployed. In May, Kasperkevic writes, "there were over seven million Americans who want a job but were not counted as part of the labor force."

Wilson says that when you look at the data coming out of the recovery, you see two things. First, you see that the black unemployment rate has recovered more slowly than the white unemployment rate. Alone, that would seem to indicate that black people are having a harder time finding work. But, she says, you also see that since 2007, before the recession, "the percentage of blacks in the labor force (employed or actively seeking work) has fallen by less than the comparable figure for whites (a 2.8 percentage-point decline versus a 3.3 percentage-point fall)."

Economic Policy Institute

Together these two data points indicate that when black Americans lose their jobs, they stick to their job search for longer than white Americans, inflating the black unemployment rate relative to white's.

Wilson's work illustrates that every time you read about high unemployment (black or white or anyone), what you're reading about isn't people who are merely out of a job, but people who are working to find their next one, month after month.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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