Sociologist Q&A: Addressing Joblessness and Poverty Among Minorities

Sociologist Sandra Smith, an associate professor at the University of California (Berkeley), examines how urban poverty, social capital, and social networks play a role in joblessness among individuals from lower socioeconomic statuses.

In her recent book, Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism Among the Black Poor, Smith highlights the role of interpersonal mistrust, largely fueled by the belief that high unemployment rates are a result of people's lack of personal responsibility.

Figures show that in nearly every level and workforce sector — from lower-skilled workers to those with degrees in professions deemed in high-need--blacks have higher unemployment rates.

(Related: Weak Social Networks Contribute to Black Joblessness)

At the start of the recession, for instance, the black unemployment rate was 7.9 percent, compared with 4.2 percent for whites and 5.8 percent for Latinos. By 2009, the jobless rate nearly doubled (12.7 percent) for blacks, according to federal figures. Those figures peaked at 16.7 percent by August 2011. Currently at 14 percent, unemployment rate for blacks is significantly higher than for other demographics.

Smith, who has a sociology doctorate from the University of Chicago, discusses with the Next America the findings of one of her studies that examined when low-skilled black and Latinos workers refer someone for a job, as well as what policies could improve unemployment rates in the black community. In the 2010 study, 68 percent of black jobholders decided against helping another black person get a job, compared with 30 percent of Latinos.

Below are edited excerpts.

A growing body of research suggests that weak social and professional networks contribute to unemployment rates. What has your research found?

I focus on working-class job seekers, but I have colleagues who have looked into highly professional areas, such as those in Silicon Valley. Blacks are less likely to be hired in those companies because they lack the networks. Often people who get professional degrees don't make the school connections with the people who can help them navigate the application process. They may later join institutional networks, but they aren't as successful or effective at making the link between those who know you and can put in a good word to the person who is hiring.

Among the low-income and working-class, one issue is that people are not finding out about jobs. Low-skilled blacks, like anyone else, find out about jobs through other workers. But since they are less likely to be in the workforce, many are not in a position to find employment through those contacts.

Your study found that black lower-class workers were significantly less likely than Latinos to help others land a job. Why is that the case?

What I'm hearing is that there's a fear of helping someone who might not perform well at work. They may see them as unmotivated, that they don't really want to work, or that they'll be extra needy once they get hired. Those fears shape the responses on whether they decide to refer someone to a job. They may have the attitude of "I'm not going to put my name on the line for you."

What are other contributing factors to the 70-year unemployment rate gap?

The literature is pretty clear: Potential employers still discriminate against blacks and Latinos, relative to whites. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about black and Latino males. There's also poor schooling, weaker professional connections, poorer reading and writing skills, and some may have a criminal background.

The research shows that when employers are sorting through applications, they will assume black males have a criminal background. Since blacks are presumed to be criminals, they are less likely to be hired than their white counterparts. When they do have a criminal record, they are also less likely to get a job than whites with one.

Also, black youth are less likely to have jobs during their adolescent years — a time when they start building work experience to put on their resumes and develop skills. It's also a time they can start to earn a bit of cash to save for college or for goals they may have down the line.

But there are so few opportunities for black kids to develop those kinds of experiences and opportunities.

What are some initiatives that might help change this?

The federal and state government has attempted to address this for decades by creating summer employment programs. There's a need for more of these intervention programs since few youths have these job opportunities.

What we also need to do is increase wages and the number and stability of low-income jobs. We need to make jobs where those who want to work full time are able. Now, people are working 12 and 25 hours a week — not nearly enough to live.

Since people are not getting the same types of jobs they were 30 years ago, we have to provide postsecondary training and certificates for vocational skills. For many, going to college is too expensive.

We also have to figure a way to reintegrate those coming out of prison. We have to do more to create jobs and not stigmatize them the way we have in the last 15 to 25 years.

There's a perception, even among some in the black community, that the inability to achieve upward mobility is largely a function of his or her will to succeed. They have the mind-set that if a person can't find a job it is because that person doesn't want a job. Most evidence suggests, however, there's a lack of investment in these communities.

Even those in the middle-class sector are starting to question the opportunity for economic upward mobility. There are people now who are saying, "I did everything I was supposed to do and I still can't afford a house or a college loan." Some are having a hard time just making ends meet.

The opportunity structure has changed in the past four decades. The economy has contributed to the rising inequality between the rich and the poor. Things are changing, and not necessarily for the better.