Nearly one in five Black Pennsylvanians was unemployed as 2020 ended, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning D.C. think tank. That was the highest rate of unemployment for Black people in any U.S. state at the time.
As vaccines roll out and some economic indicators improve, a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black people also has worsened pre-existing economic inequality, experts and community leaders said.
Initially, the pandemic actually leveled the playing field, according to Kyle Moore, the economist focusing on race and inequality for EPI who crunched the data. Pre-pandemic unemployment was low on average, but Black workers were still about twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers.
But as jobs plummeted in March and April 2020, that reduced inequality.
“That ratio actually fell to an extent that Black workers were only about 20% more likely to be unemployed than white workers, at least at the beginning,” Moore said.
In other words, when everyone was laid low, things were fairer. Once the slow economic recovery began last year, pre-existing gaps reappeared and began widening.
Now, “unemployment rates for Black workers are falling a lot slower, similar to previous recessions,” Moore said. “That points towards more structural issues with the economy.”
Pennsylvania is the most extreme example of that national trend, which EPI pulled from Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the second half of 2020 to examine the demographics of the early economic recovery.
“Unemployment rates were highest for Black workers in Pennsylvania (19.5%), Michigan (17.9%), Illinois (15.7%) and the District of Columbia (15.6%). Black workers were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers in the District of Columbia and four states: Alabama, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas,” reads the report.
While these numbers are for 2020, preliminary numbers from 2021 do not indicate a change in the overall trend even as employment picks up, said Moore. Data for January and February show that the difference between Black and white unemployment nationally is continuing to grow farther apart. To Moore, that signals just how baked in racial inequality is, “that this is what the economy looks like even when we have quote-unquote low unemployment.”
Regina A. Hairston, president, and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, said these figures reflect what she sees in the local Black-owned business community.
“Access to capital has always been an issue,” she said. “Black business owners flock to businesses that are easier [to] enter into” such as salons, barbershops, and retail establishments.
Those are some of the same industries to suffer most due to pandemic job loss. Personal service jobs, such as the beauty industry, are still down 14.4% since January 2020, according to numbers from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.
“Black and brown workers were typically employed in industries that were hardest hit by the pandemic. So those industries included hospitality, so your hotel, your maintenance workers,” said Jabari Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, an economic development group.
State data also backs that up. There are fully one-quarter fewer jobs in Pennsylvania in leisure and hospitality fields than there were pre-pandemic, and Black workers are over-represented in some of those positions.
As many jobs moved online, Jones said he saw firsthand how many people simply didn’t have that option.
“In our city, we have a lot of folks who have been low-skilled, low wage workers. That has put them in jobs that are not able to go virtual,” he said.
Virtual work also remained out-of-reach due to technology gaps, said Jones, who saw the equipment needs of residents during a computer and appliance repair event he organized in October.
The most recent federal unemployment data, released March 25, showed signs of an economy on the mend, as new unemployment claims dropped to their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic.
In order to support Black workers and businesses, Hairston said she hoped the U.S. Senate would pass an extension to the PPP loan deadline, which it did after her interview with Keystone Crossroads. She also said funding for the Community Navigator Pilot Program in the most recent stimulus bill would help make sure that Black-owned businesses can connect to available relief funds. Jones said rent and utility relief will be important even as the economy reopens so that workers and businesses do not get slammed with debts accrued during the pandemic just as they recover.
Moore said he hoped that the conversation about a growing economy would not ignore the fact that there are multiple realities on the ground.
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.