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When it comes to jobs, income and acquiring wealth, race still matters more than education.


200138462-001Former President Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign is notably remembered for a political television commercial with the opening line, “It’s morning, again, in America.” The optimism expressed in the narration suggested that improvements to the U.S. economy since the recession of the late 1970’s were due to Reagan’s policies. It was a winning message. But like the all-white faces of those featured — the advert excluded African-Americans and every other racial minority. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 has been compared to America’s economic woes under President Jimmy Carter. This card was mostly played by Republicans during the 2012 election — hoping the stain of Carter’s one-term presidency might spell doom for Barack Obama by Democratic association. That didn’t work. What wasn’t discussed was the plight of American workers during the recession years of Reagan’s first term, who saw lifetime wage declines and longterm wealth gaps — never managing to fully recover from extended periods of unemployment and underemployment. History is now repeating itself, with the worst disparities affecting black and brown people. 

Research based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 15.9 percent of Americans were “underemployed” in 2011. This includes the long-term unemployed, discouraged workers who have abandoned looking for work altogether, as well as part-time workers who can’t secure enough hours to sustain a living wage. For young people — with high-school diplomas and four-year college degrees — the landscape is even worse. The underemployment rate for 18-to-24 years old was 28.6 percent in 2011, compared to 16.6 percent for 25-to-34 year olds and 12.8 percent for adults over the age of 35. Disparities based on race were staggering: 42.6 of African-Americans under 25 were underemployed, and 32.6 of Hispanics. Only 24.5 percent of young whites were underemployed.

President Obama‘s recent commencement address at Morehouse College eluded to difficulties faced by young black males entering a fragile labor market, and the underlying statistical data is undeniable — showing that young people who pursue a college education may be at a disadvantage in the long-term, as student loan debt is crippling the millenial generation. Despite a steady economic recovery, most private sector jobs created have been for low-skilled service sector work. American industry is competing with the BRIC countries; while U.S. corporations continue to move jobs offshore. The nation’s generations X and Y (those under 40) are outmatched by advanced technologies reliant on fewer workers; and must compete with citizens of developing economies, who work longer hours for less pay. 

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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