This story was republished from the Columbia Missourian.
COVID-19 delivered a severe blow to employment across the board. Now, the situation is improving as people return to work, with the overall federal unemployment rate dropping to 5.2% in August, its lowest level since the onset of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the unemployment rate for Black Americans is still elevated, and it increased in August to 8.8%.
Black Missourians are experiencing similar unemployment trends, feeling the effects of COVID-19 to a greater extent than other populations.
According to data provided by the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development, in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate for Missouri’s Black population from April 2019 to March 2020 was 5.2%. From May 2020 to April 2021, during the height of pandemic unemployment, the rate for Missouri’s Black population averaged 9.7%.
Missouri’s white population, however, had an average unemployment rate of 3.0% in the year predating the pandemic. During the height of COVID-19 job losses, that unemployment rate reached an average of 5.2%.
In other words, the worst months of the pandemic brought about an unemployment rate for Missouri’s white population that matched the average unemployment rate of Missouri’s Black population in the preceding year.
The current disparities are the result of COVID-19 amplifying preexisting inequalities.
“This has been consistent with the disparities in employment over time,” said Adia Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. “Black workers often have higher rates of unemployment than white workers, especially in economic downturns. Not because they are averse to wanting to work, not because they lack skills, but because of internal processes in terms of how people are hired and the rampant discrimination that Black workers often face in the job market.”
Black teenagers are even more susceptible to unemployment than their adult counterparts, as their unemployment rate rose to 17.9% in August, up from 13.3% in July. During the pandemic, unemployment for Black teens peaked at 34.9% in May 2020.
The unemployment rate among white teenagers also increased over the last month, but not nearly to the same degree. The rate climbed to 9.5% in August from 8.2% in July. Unemployment for white teens reached a pandemic peak of 31.2% in April 2020.
“(Teenagers) are likely being squeezed out of jobs that otherwise would have been their niche,” Wingfield said, “because of economic restructuring and the fact that older workers with families to support are trying to hold those jobs and cobble together incomes from multiple jobs like that.”
Jerrell Morton is the director of the YouthBuild program at Job Point, an employment office in Columbia that aids people in career-building. Morton says that one of the biggest issues he sees perpetuating unemployment for Black workers is increased difficulty retaining jobs rather than a lack of opportunities.
“It’s just the instability and the chaos and the misinformation,” Morton said. “It all makes it difficult to just focus on going to work.”
For people who were already facing uncertainty regarding housing and transportation, COVID-19 has only aggravated that instability further. This makes commuting to work and performing well more challenging.
State Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, concurred that retention issues are a large part of what’s driving the current unemployment situation and that the consequences are widespread in mid-Missouri.
“It’s affecting everything. I mean, obviously people aren’t working,” Smith said. “It’s a problem all across the board — I think that effects everybody.”
Wingfield says these disparities in employment do not bode well for the recovering economy.
“We’re likely to see economic recovery hamstrung by the fact that Black workers are likely to be left out of it and likely to still have higher rates of unemployment, even as we round the curve and come out of the crisis,” Wingfield said.
The continuation of unemployment disparities has a multitude personal, social and economic consequences. Morton is concerned about potential increases in crime and the personal toll unemployment takes on young people in particular. Job Point provides opportunities and aid to combat unemployment on the individual level.
“We meet the individual where they’re at, and we try to reduce as many barriers as possible so that they can focus on their education,” Morton said. “My specialty is the youth side of things, and our program really allows a student to let down their guard and start to gain the skills necessary to maintain employment long term or to even continue their education beyond just a high school level.”
Wingfield worries that further disparities in unemployment levels could diminish the economy as a whole.
“It doesn’t put us in a good position as a society to have growing segments of populations of color who are disproportionately un- or underemployed,” Wingfield said. “It is a waste of human potential, it is a waste of human capital, and it doesn’t bode well for a long-term future, where we are likely to be a more multiracial society, if certain segments of the population are facing greater difficulties accessing employment.”
Wingfield says the best way to remedy disproportionate unemployment in the Black community begins with individual organizations.
“I think that the next step has to be to rely on evidence-based solutions from the research that does document how organizations can move the needle and make change,” Wingfield said, “and be more attuned to the challenges their workers of color face, and rely on strategies that actually are shown to produce outcomes, not just the strategies that are popular and get a lot of traction and attention.”