One of the 44%


The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has published a front page story about the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Center for Development about the disappearance from the job market of African American men. Over the past 40 years employment levels for men 16 to 64, a group which includes me, have fallen from 73% to just barely 44%.  At the same time, incarceration rates have risen dramatically. Even for men not incarcerated, it’s not uncommon to find they are paying off tickets for disorderly conduct or other offenses.  At the same time, they we are leaving the job scene, we are actually becoming less employable.

According to the UWM study, the bottom 5 cities for black male employment were

  1. Chicago 48.3%
  2. Cleveland 47.7%
  3. Milwaukee44.7%
  4. Buffalo 43.9%
  5. Detroit43.0%

The top 5 were

  1. Washington 66.6%
  2. Dallas 61.%
  3. Boston 59.7%
  4. Minneapolis 59.3%
  5. Atlanta 59.0%

You will notice that those top levels of employment are nowhere near the peak level from 40 years ago.  Further, the declines in employment levels covered white, Hispanic and black men. It is a trend that mirrored the de-industrialization of northern cities.  As our jobs fled south and later to China (that giant sucking sound Ross Perot  warned  us about) we have been left with lower paid positions in the service industry.

The factory jobs that remain are largely performed by robots that do all the manual labor that our parents used to do. It’s called getting more out of workers or some fancy term like “productivity.”

As an African-American male I find this situation troubling. When I left Buffalo in 1980 it was already in decline. Although things looked better in my new home of Milwaukee, it, too was on the way down. Despite two college degrees I found it difficult to develop and sustain a satisfactory career.  In recent years I have created a new career, as a peer specialist and for the first time my income and hours worked began to rise. I guess I should feel grateful but I worry about the long term implications of the UWM study.

My nephew John has started a family in Buffalo. Will he fall victim, too? Is America prepared to ignore the skills of millions men who play by the rules and strive for a piece of the dream? Are we going to recapture those jobs that fled our shores? Can a man who creates jobs in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland understand the plight of American workers? I don’t think so, Mitt! Can a man who labelled Barack Obama “the food stamp president” identify with the issues facing low income workers? No way, Newt. Will the former publisher of racist newsletters give a damn whether black men and women drown in this economy?

Barack Obama’s future is tied to our success. We may not return to the employment levels of the 1970s overnight but that’s the only way we can create an America that is born to succeed.

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