The outrage driving protesters into America’s streets runs many layers deep. At the top is the death of George Floyd and the horrible persistence of police brutality. The latest jobs report reflects another: the disproportionate damage that the coronavirus pandemic is inflicting on people of color.
Although overall employment rebounded a bit, as the slow reopening of the economy allowed some businesses to bring workers back, the damage remains severe. As of May, about 52.8% of people aged 16 and older were employed, up a bit from April but still down from 61.1% in February, while the number of people reported as “absent” from work, as opposed to unemployed, suggests the drop has actually been larger.
For black people, the situation was even worse: Just 49.6% were employed in May, down from 59.4% in February — a decline of 3.2 million jobs. (Latinos experienced outsize losses, too.) Over the same period, white employment fell about 8 percentage points, to 53.4% from 61.3%.
The disparity was also visible in unemployment rates, which count only those people actively looking for work. The rate for black workers kept increasing in May, even as rates for other groups began to decline.
Black workers are vulnerable to the pandemic in more ways than one. Brookings Institution researchers Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane estimate that they occupy an outsize share — more than 15% — of “front-line” jobs that require physical presence, putting them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. By some measures, they’re also overrepresented in relatively low-wage service industries — think hotels, restaurants and retail — that are most affected by efforts to stop the spread.
Data beyond the jobs report confirm the disparate impact. In the weekly Household Pulse Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, some 55% of black households (and 61% of Latino households) reported a loss of employment income since mid-March, compared with 43% of white households. The inequity extends to entrepreneurs: The number of working black business owners declined an estimated 41% between February and April, compared with 17% for white business owners, according to economist Robert Fairlie of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Sadly, this is no anomaly. Recessions tend to hit black people even more disproportionately than the current one has, reflecting a broader economic insecurity that stems from generations of discrimination. It’s difficult to succeed if you grow up in a neighborhood with failing schools, inadequate health care, and environmental and social hazards including lead poisoning and omnipresent incarceration — as far too many black Americans do. Even when they’re equally qualified, they have a harder time getting job interviews and are paid less when they do get hired. When things get bad, they’re among the first to be fired.
The pattern will repeat until Americans recognize and address the underlying inequities. One must hope that the toll wrought by the pandemic, and the voices of peaceful protesters, can generate the necessary political will — to reform law enforcement, defend civil rights, invest in communities and remove the obstacles preventing too many people from realizing their full potential.
In the meantime, governments at all levels must alleviate the immediate suffering. This requires redoubling efforts to get relief cash to the people who need it most, reducing barriers to accessing unemployment benefits, and expanding programs (such as food stamps) that are best designed to reach those in poverty quickly. It means ensuring people have the resources they need to stay safe, get medical help and care for their loved ones — for example, by expanding Medicaid coverage and paid sick and family leave. It’s the least a society can do.