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'One Nation Underemployed' Shows Blacks Still In Crisis


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to start the program today talking about the National Urban League's annual report - The State of Black America.

It says that black and Latino people are still feeling the effects of the great recession, especially in their pocketbooks. The Urban League report is called "One Nation Underemployed: Jobs Rebuild America." The president of the organization, Marc Morial, is with us now. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

MARC MORIAL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called Spencer Overton. He is interim president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That's a research and policy organization that focuses on people of color. And he's back with us as well. Welcome back to you.


MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Overton. So, Marc Morial, the report is titled "One Nation Underemployed." Why do you focus on underemployment? And I mean, one of the issues we've been reporting on quite extensively in recent years is that the unemployment rate for African-Americans and Latinos has been consistently high. So why are you focusing on underemployment?

MORIAL: Underemployment is sort of a component of the economic challenges we face. So underemployment means a person may be working but - for example, they may be in a full-time job, but want to work in a - or maybe in a part-time job - may want to work in a full-time job. Or they're working, as a woman I recently met, as a cashier at a grocery store, happy to be employed, but qualified to - and spent 24 years as a teacher. So this underemployment problem is not fully captured by simply looking at the joblessness rate or the unemployment rate. And we think it is something that is part of the picture of the recovery since the great recession.

MARTIN: One of the other things that the report has done consistently - now the Urban League has published this report since 1976 - but in the last few years, you've also focused on something called the equality index, where you evaluate how African-Americans and more recently Latinos are doing economically relative to whites. And one of the things that you found - I'm going to quote here - that the gap, the wealth gap, between blacks and whites has actually grown in recent years. Talk a little bit about that.

MORIAL: It's increased significantly since the great recession because the great recession was also a foreclosure crisis when many people lost their homes. And for people of color, particularly African-Americans, so much of their wealth was tied up in the equity in their homes. So when that went away - as well as sort of the downturn in African-American business ownership - when that sort of went away, it widened the wealth gap.

So for many white Americans, they face foreclosure, the economic downturn no doubt, but the recovery for white Americans has been faster. It's not been complete, it's not full - many continue to be in challenging circumstances, but that wealth gap is particularly troubling because it's widened a lot.

MARTIN: Spencer Overton, you were not involved in the report, but as we mentioned, that the Joint Center is a research institution and you do - your organization does similar research along similar lines. What stands out for you?

OVERTON: Well, first of all, it's a very impressive report. I'm always amazed year-to-year, the equality index. It allows us to compare year-to-year and see how we're doing, giving us an accurate snapshot. I think what's new this year is the metropolitan city comparison so that we can really see what policies may be working, what policies may not be working.

The wealth gap stood out to me, that you talked about before, you know, progress is not inevitable. The other piece is there are places that have high African-American household median income, right, places like D.C., New York, Baltimore, Boston, but in those very places, inequality is very high. So simply growing the pie doesn't solve all the problems. We definitely want to grow the pie, but we also want to deal with inequality.

MARTIN: Well, what does that suggest for you? Marc Morial, do you want to pick that up? You're saying that even in places where the black median income is relatively high, you also find that the gap with their white peers is also very high. Like, what are the policy implications of that?

MORIAL: So Washington, D.C. is an interesting example, and maybe the best example 'cause black median income in Washington, D.C. exceeds $60,000. But white median income in Washington, D.C. exceeds $100,000. So you still have a wide gap even though blacks and whites have a higher median income.

So inequality is something that can exist on many, many fronts. And it exists in Washington, D.C. the same way it may exist in a community where the white median income is in the 50s, and the black median income may be in the 20s. And that may be the picture for someone, so we...

MARTIN: What about some of the other side of the equation, though? I mean, one of the things that was interesting to me about - according to the index - and obviously I know that there's lots of ways to interpret these numbers - are the places where the disparity was lowest and where the black unemployment rate was lowest.

I mean, according to your tables, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Knoxville, Tennessee, Durham, Chapel Hill, North Carolina - lower black unemployment rates. And the disparity was lower in places like Ontario, California, Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia, South Carolina, Titusville, Florida, Las Vegas. Is there something we can glean from that?

MORIAL: It's - yeah, I think what I glean from it - and again, every city has its own set of circumstances. The index numbers don't talk about the overall economy. But in some of those cities, you may have both high black and high white unemployment, or you may have lower black and lower white unemployment.

This index is the disparity. It's the gulf, if you will, between blacks and whites and Latinos, and we thought we would measure that. And we think and hope that what this is going to do is encourage and spur people to go to the report, look at the situation for their own hometown and for elected officials, community leaders, business leaders, people who work on community and economic situations and problems and want that growth, they should focus on this and say, what are we doing in our town to address this gap?

MARTIN: Let me just ask you one more thing because then I do want to turn around to what policy implications, in your view, come from this report. But just one more thing. Earlier this week, we spoke with some of the people behind another survey. It was a joint project of Ebony magazine and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

And this was about African-American attitudes. And one of the things that stood out for these researchers was that 88 percent of the people they surveyed said that they were satisfied with the quality of their lives. And that was something that was troubling to Dr. Gail Christopher of the Kellogg Foundation. And here's her comment.


GAIL CHRISTOPHER: I think that the satisfaction with the quality of life reflects being lulled into, in some cases, too much complacency. The actual facts about our economic situation and about the achievement gaps in school and the overrepresentation in suspension rates and the incarceration disparity tell us as a community that we have a lot of work to do.

MARTIN: What do you think about that, Marc Morial?

MORIAL: Well, I know from extensive experience with polling that sometimes people don't want to say to a stranger, I'm unhappy with my life. Sometimes a question, when framed, what about your community, are you happy with the progress of your community, may yield a different result.

I didn't take a look at the survey, but I think Dr. Christopher is absolutely right. I think if you ask people more pertinent questions - are you satisfied with the rate of employment, are you satisfied with all the schools in your hometown - you might get a different response. I think there's growing concern about the challenges we face. Although, I think people - and this speaks for African-Americans - have an optimism, a resilience, a strength, a determination, a fortitude that no matter how challenging the times are, we will overcome.

MARTIN: So let's get to solutions. Are there some specific policy prescriptions that flow from these findings, Spencer Overton?

OVERTON: I think so. One piece here is STEM and the importance of STEM. You know, African-Americans are much more likely to use Twitter, to have a mobile phone than some others, but they are underrepresented in terms of producing in the technology area. And so there's a Joint Center report that found that if we were to increase the rate of STEM-related degrees among African-Americans and Latinos to the same rate as Asian-Americans, we'd add about 140,000 new STEM degree holders every year. That would benefit the economy. It would also go a long way in terms of inequality.

MORIAL: So our report...

MARTIN: Marc Morial, what about you? You've been advocating for the minimum - an increase in the minimum wage.

MORIAL: Yeah, and there's a long list of recommendations that are contained in the report. But short-term, increasing the minimum wage is going to help people's earnings rise - about 28 million Americans, many of them women, about half of them people of color. Secondly, we'll advocate very strongly for investments in transportation infrastructure, to put people back to work fixing roads, bridges, the infrastructure of our communities and our nations. And then thirdly, I think - and the report focuses on this, and the Urban League is in the center of this - this concept of partnerships.

We've got a public-private nonprofit partnership called Jobs Rebuild America that we are leading right now. It's a $100 million investment over a five-year period. It's an expansion of job training to train people for the jobs of today, afterschool programs with a focus on STEM and entrepreneurship. So there are many, many solutions. We need more scale. We need more emphasis. And the idea behind the report is to point out this crisis and to say it remains a crisis. And we have to realize so much more needs to be done.

MARTIN: Spencer Overton, you were telling us that the policies today will determine whether income inequality will continue along racial lines as we've seen from -geographically, it does vary, which is interesting 'cause I think that is probably a relatively new development...


MARTIN: ...That income inequality actually does vary...

MORIAL: This research is different...

MARTIN: ...From place to place.

MORIAL: ...You see. That's why this is so interesting because we've got the local information.

MARTIN: But, Spencer Overton, I'm going to give you a final thought here. I gave Marc Morial the first word. I'm going to give you the final word. What else do you want policymakers to keep in mind as they look at this information?

OVERTON: Well, important, in terms of 2043, majority people-of-color country. We need policies today that ensure that inequality doesn't track racial lines in the future. One small quibble that I would have has to do civic engagement. The report focuses on voter registration and some other factors.

There are variety of other areas where civic engagement there is not parody - representation in the U.S. Senate, who is giving money. And so I would really encourage the Urban League to incorporate some other factors in the civic engagement moving forward.

MARTIN: OK. Spencer Overton is interim president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That's a research and policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Marc Morial is president of the National Urban League. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. That you both...

MORIAL: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: ...So much for speaking with us.

MORIAL: Thank you.

OVERTON: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.