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Employment squeeze worries blacks

Barbara Scarborough can't catch a break. First, she lost her production job at a contact lens manufacturer after Sept. 11. "I had a 401(k) and benefits for the first time. That was a good job," said the 41-year-old single mother on Chicago's South Side.

Then she was laid off in March from a packaging house. And in July, after working only a month as a part-time telephone market researcher, earning far less than before, she was laid off again.

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Scarborough had prospered during the 1990s economic boom, when blacks flooded the labor market. Many received steady hours, health insurance and retirement benefits, and were able to save money. The black jobless rate, as high as 14.7 percent in 1992, dropped to a 30-year low of 7 percent in April 2000.

But as quickly as blacks moved ahead, many have fallen backward. The black unemployment rate in July stood at 11.1 percent, higher than that for Hispanics (8.2 percent) and double the rate for whites (5.5 percent). Heavy job losses in manufacturing and service hit a disproportionate number of blacks, and private-sector cuts sent more college-educated blacks to the unemployment lines than ever before.

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Many were the last hired, the first fired. Some have lost homes and their independence; others are fighting to keep what they've got.

Job training is harder to come by, and so is transportation to jobs far from home. They struggle to provide for their children and are forced to put on hold plans to better themselves - such as returning to college or learning a new skill.

The result is widespread disillusionment among those who are "out there" again so soon after getting out from under.

"Some people feel like, 'I've done everything I was asked to do.' They were able to stop looking to their family and friends for support. They're back in that situation again," said Joan Archie, director of the Chicago Urban League's employment counseling and training department.

Inner city concerns

Experts predict that as blacks compete for fewer jobs in a weak labor market where employers are prone to be more selective and biases come into play, joblessness among blacks could reach the crisis level again, especially in the inner city.

"If the recent economic boom could have been extended for several more years, it would have significantly lowered the overall jobless rate in areas such as the inner-city ghetto, not only for low-skilled workers ... but for those who have been outside the labor market for many years," said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard University social policy professor and author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.

As a result of fruitless job searches, resentment is growing among some blacks toward immigrant workers, particularly Hispanics. There's a perception that they are taking jobs once held by blacks. "It seems Hispanics have more advantages," said Abdul Azeem Muhammad, who was laid off in November as a software engineer for Motorola. "But I'm not knocking them. I'm just saying it's rough on us. I think they're willing to hire anybody but a black man."

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Least desired workers

The black unemployment rate has historically been twice that of whites. Research shows that black males continue to be the least desired workers. Muhammad, with his shaved head and religious affiliation - he is a black Muslim - may be viewed suspiciously by some employers, despite his master's degree in information systems and computer science and nine years of experience.

"A lot of the sectors that have been hard hit have been the higher-wage jobs," said Mary Daly, a senior research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank who co-wrote the study, Black-White Wage Inequality in the 1990s: A Decade of Progress. "Lower-skilled unemployment rate didn't jump as much as it did for higher-wage jobs," she said.

Fewer skills, more risk

Still, the lower-skilled, undereducated blacks will have the most difficulty recovering.

Consider Monica Thompson, 44, who was laid off in March from Bank One's loan-processing department.

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She doesn't have a college degree, but has more than 10 years of on-the-job experience. She would like another office job, but today's employers are reluctant to hire people who need training, and the federal government has cut job-training programs.

Recently, she lost an opportunity because she failed the typing test.

"I understand companies have certain requirements, but you don't have to have a college degree to learn," said Thompson, a divorced mother of a 20-year-old senior at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

Her son took a full-time job to help out. "By him working, I didn't have to worry about tuition and rent," she said. "That was truly a blessing."

Some have fallen back to where they started. After staying off welfare for 10 years, Scarborough, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, is back on food stamps. She feels lucky to have them because the "work first" philosophy of welfare reform has made it harder for displaced workers to obtain public assistance.

Yet Scarborough lost her house in early 2002 and now rents a home with a roommate for herself and her two daughters, ages 10 and 12. The girls' father helps out, but Scarborough's savings are drying up.

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"I'm worried. It's constantly on my mind," she said. "Constantly."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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