The good news from last week’s employment report, that unemployment had dropped below 6 percent, was even better than it sounded. Not only was the unemployment rate down to levels we haven’t seen in years, but the drop was due to real job gains, not simply to discouraged workers decided not to bother looking for work.
Just how good the news is undoubtedly depends on one’s perspective, including perhaps one’s partisan perspective. While Republicans in hotly contested U.S. Senate and House races seem to be exploiting fear more than economic difficulties, a struggling economy certainly helps stoke the engine of midterm election judgment against the President. Conversely, should the improvements in employment continue, there’s at least something advocates for Democrats can cheer about, and one less thing to fear.
Below the topline numbers, however, there are insights that merit attention. Most of these numbers-behind-the-numbers aren’t really new, but when all the numbers are bad, it’s hard to get particularly excited about some particularly bad numbers.
Now, with progress evident, it’s time for us to confront the underlying fundamentals of unemployment in many of our communities.
This is what I see as the set of fundamentals for many of us, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report:
- One in five teenagers (16-19) seeking employment is unemployed.
- The unemployment rate among African-Americans is more than twice the unemployment rate of whites.
- The unemployment rate among those with less than a high school education is nearly three times the unemployment rate of those with bachelor’s degrees or better.
- Thirty-one percent of all unemployed persons are long-term unemployed (unemployed more than six months).
These are the numbers that should guide what we do locally. We can’t change the global economy, nor have much impact on national economic trends. The state can adopt its particular approach to job creation, and that may, or may not, help us. Either way, there is little we can do about it.
But in our own communities, we can drill down from the macro-economic to the personal. We can think about unemployment as a matter of individuals, each facing a particular and identifiable challenge, each with his or her own story. Knowing that many of these stories are told by teens, by African-Americans, by the poorly-educated, and by those who have been unsuccessful job seekers, helps us think about where and what we ought to do to reach these individuals and respond to their needs.
We don’t need a generic surge of spending now as much as we need education, and training, and personal skill development, and networking, and job coaching. Given the groups struggling the most with employment opportunity today, those are the tools for achieving employment gains one individual and one neighborhood and one community at a time. And they are tools we, at the local level, can assemble with our partners in business, in education, and in the non-profit world.
No community can solve the unemployment problem alone. But recognizing what the problem of unemployment looks like, what face it wears, we can tackle it effectively. We can create opportunities and witness success stories one person at a time.
It’s what public service is all about, at the local level. And it matters . . . one person at a time.