As protests against police brutality roil the nation in the wake of George Floyd's death, high unemployment among African Americans is likely fueling another undercurrent of frustration.
On Friday, the unemployment rate surprisingly fell to 13.3% in May from April's record of 14.7%, the Labor Department said, which was the highest since the Great Depression. While unemployment among white workers fell to 12.4%, unemployment for black workers rose to 16.8%, the highest in more than a decade and particularly crippling because they often have a more fragile safety net to rely on.
The numbers show that black people, along with women and young people, continue to bear the brunt of the economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
"The pandemic and related job losses have been especially devastating for black households,'' the Economic Policy Institute said in a recent report. "They have historically suffered from higher unemployment rates, lower wages, lower incomes, and much less savings to fall back on, as well as significantly higher poverty rates than their white counterparts.''
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The spike in unemployment reversed what had been historic declines. African Americans had a record low unemployment rate of 5.4% in August.
“It certainly is the case that we were finally seeing the recovery from the Great Recession hit more and more people,'' says Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute. "Historically disadvantaged groups were finally beginning to see lower unemployment rates.''
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Still, Gould said, "significant racial gaps remained.''
And while unemployment rates reached record lows last year, the job gains were often concentrated at the lower end of the pay scale, making it more difficult for black and Latino workers to accumulate the savings or benefits that could help them weather the current economic storm.
"These workers were ... in pretty (bad) jobs before this crisis and couldn't build up wealth to build a financial cushion,'' says Kate Bahn, director of labor market policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. "So it’s really a layering on top of what is the hugest, fastest decline in the economy we've seen since the Great Depression.''
While stronger unemployment benefits could be particularly helpful to lower wage workers, multiple measures will be necessary to survive a crisis that is crippling much of the nation, Gould says.
"It's clear that the hurt is being felt across the country, so Congress needs to continue providing relief to workers across the board,'' Gould says, adding that aid to local and state governments is also critical. "All those things are essential to getting us through this period and to the other side.''
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black unemployment 2020: Joblessness compounds anguish over brutality