David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

“An economic recovery is not complete unless everyone recovers, so there’s still work to do”, says Janelle Jones, the chief economist at the federal Department of Labor. By this metric, the City and State administrations face a long road ahead, especially for recovery in the Black community.

While the national economy seems to be rebounding from the latest Omicron assault at a healthy rate, New York’s recovery is lagging behind. The city is still missing over 412,000 of the nearly one million jobs it had lost at the onset of the pandemic. While the citywide unemployment rate seems to be falling, albeit at a rate that lags behind the national trend, unemployment rates of Black workers have been rising at a frightening rate over the second half of 2021. Joblessness problems are also far more acute for youth (aged 16 to 24 years), and especially Black and Hispanic youth, who are more likely to work in sectors that were hit the hardest by the pandemic, e.g., retail and hospitality. 

Even before the onset of the pandemic when the economy was at ‘full-employment,’ Black workers’ experience of the labor market was quite different: their unemployment rates were twice that of white workers, and they were more likely to encounter difficulties in entering the workforce. These differences persist across age, gender, and educational attainment, upending the popular myth of ‘education as the great equalizer.’ 

Black individuals encounter structural barriers in all domains of labor market—in hiring, promotion and compensation. During downturns Black workers are among the first to be fired and last to be hired back as business picks up. Despite corporate workplaces reiterating their commitments to ‘diversity and inclusion’ through public messaging, the rungs of the career ladder remain inaccessible to most Black and brown employees due to a combination of unconscious/implicit bias, and negative stereotyping. Decades of mass incarceration policies have resulted in arrest and conviction histories for large numbers of Black men, and their conviction records make it immensely harder to enter the job market. CSS has long advocated for automatic cleaning of criminal records for New Yorkers once they become eligible—a change that would ease access to employment and housing opportunities for 2.3 million New Yorkers.  

Inequities in employment and earnings translate to greater economic insecurity and increased hardship for Black households. CSS’s  2021 Unheard Third survey of low-income New Yorkers shows 38 percent of Black respondents reported experiencing temporary or permanent job loss since the onset of the pandemic—a higher share relative to whites and Asians (29 percent) and Latina/o/x respondents (35 percent). Almost a quarter of all Black households, and 36 percent of all low-income Black households, have less than $100 in savings at any time—indicating acute financial precarity, where one unanticipated big expense can force a household into debilitating debt. 

Black households battle economic insecurity on a daily basis in New York City. Our survey data shows that one-in-four low-income Black households struggled to afford transit fares on the city’s public transit system. Twenty one percent have cut back on purchasing necessary school supplies. More than a quarter of Black respondents said that they could not afford and/or access high speed internet. 

While housing affordability was already a challenge for most New Yorkers, it has worsened over the last year for Black New Yorkers, as 41 percent of Black households saw their rents increase and 30 percent fell behind on rent or mortgage. Based on previous CSS research, we know that Black and Latina/o/x households face increased risk of eviction relative to white households with similar economic conditions leading to increased homelessness risks among households from these communities. 

So, as we celebrate the achievements of the Black community, let us implore our elected officials to give serious consideration to solutions that can further uplift African-Americans today based on this startling backdrop. We recommend: 

  • Institute universal Summer Youth Employment Programs to help connect students to jobs and create a talent pipeline to expedite the recovery. 
  • Expand the earned income tax credit for youth workers and increasing the credit amount for childless, working adults. 
  • Pass the Good Cause Eviction bill to give tenants the right to remain in their homes. 
  • Given the unlikelihood of new federal commitments to public housing—home to 240,000 African-American residents–the state and the city should give serious consideration to the Preservation Trust model as a way to address NYCHA’s $40 billion capital backlog. 
  • Pass the Housing Access Voucher Program to move homeless households into housing and keep low-income tenants from losing their homes due to non-payment. 
  • Expanding Fair Fares–the City’s discounted MetroCard program–to include all city residents making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. 

As New Yorkers emerge from the pandemic, we must capitalize on this moment and aspire for a true new normal—one where economic security and racial justice are addressed as intertwined priorities and where we focus on the needs of every day New Yorkers. Because as Dr. King once said – “the time is always right to do what is right.”

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.

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