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Improved U.S. unemployment rate doesn't reflect troubling trend for Black women

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Despite a grim economic outlook from the World Bank, the U.S. job market is still pretty strong. Data released this month shows that there's been a slight decline in the unemployment rate, which is now 3.5%. But the picture looks very different for one group in particular, Black women. Their unemployment rate actually rose between November and December from 5.2% to 5.5%. We wanted to hear more about the story behind these figures, so we've called Michelle Holder. She is a professor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She's also a distinguished senior fellow at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. That's a think tank that publishes research on economic growth. And she's with us now. Professor Holder, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHELLE HOLDER: Oh, thank you, Michel, for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Let's start off with these new unemployment figures. In December, the economy added 223,000 jobs, bringing the unemployment rate down to 3.5%. So what's your reaction overall? Is there something in particular that sticks out to you?

HOLDER: You know, for all intents and purposes, this particular report was a fairly strong report and certainly one that the Federal Reserve specifically would be looking closely at, because what they probably would have wanted to see was a much weaker job growth creation number. But the other thing that also stood out to me is while, you know, we saw the unemployment rate tick down for most major demographic groups, the same cannot be said for Black women. Black women's unemployment rate actually ticked up. And this is kind of a troubling trend that I've been seeing with Black women's unemployment, certainly since the beginning of the pandemic.

MARTIN: And why might that be? I mean, the pandemic is sort of understood to be over. I mean, it's not obviously completely over. People are still getting infected. People are still having to take time off from work and things of that sort. We've seen kind of a surge in, you know, flu and RSV cases and other things that are sort of disturbing. But why is that?

HOLDER: What changed is the industrial mix of the jobs that we added back. They're not exactly the same jobs. And so when you look at Black women in particular as a demographic group in the American labor market, Black women tend to be overrepresented in certain industries. For example, nearly a third of Black women in this country work in the health care and social services sector. About 10% of Black women work in the educational services sector. And another nearly 10%, just over 9%, work in accommodation and food services as cashiers, things like that, cashiers for fast food restaurants, et cetera. In fact, one of the most likely job that Black women lost during the first three months of the pandemic was as a cashier. And that is in the accommodation and food services industry.

And so what has happened is that when the economy regained all jobs lost, certain industrial sectors did not regain all the jobs lost, while other industrial sectors grew. For Black women, because we - because I am a Black woman - we are overrepresented in sectors such as education, social services, health services and to some degree leisure and hospitality, our ability to regain our foothold in the American labor market was not as strong. But for Black men, that's been actually the opposite. Black men are overrepresented in the transportation and warehousing sector. So if you look closely at the last monthly situation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you see again - and I apologize for repeating myself - that Black women's unemployment rate ticked up but Black men's did not. And so this is what is happening. It is at the heart of what's happening to Black women is, where are the jobs being regained in our economy? And they are not necessarily being regained in the sectors that Black women are well-represented in.

MARTIN: I mean, I guess the question that a lot of people would have is, are these changes that we've seen in the way the workplace is changing, in the kinds of jobs that people are doing, are those changes permanent?

HOLDER: Well, of course, as an economist, I'm in some ways loathe to predict, Right? Because often, economists' predictions turn out to be wrong. But I would say some, you know, permanent changes happening in terms of the industrial mix of jobs really instigated by the pandemic and how that affected how people shop, what services we seek. So there are some permanent changes. On the other hand, new opportunities were being presented. And I, you know, I'll refer back to this growth in the transportation and warehousing sector in terms of employment that has benefited Black men because Black men are overrepresented in that sector. So I think perhaps what we need to think about is, do Black women need to sort of pivot what industries we will join in the future, given that the industrial mix has changed and those changes have not necessarily benefited our demographic?

MARTIN: Well, so tell us what else we should be thinking about, you know, going forward here. Is there some way in which you would translate this into policy or...

HOLDER: One of the things that normally happens - right? - when we see changes in the industrial mix and certain demographic groups left behind, we think about training. We think about education. We think about, you know, what are going to be those jobs in those industries that are growing, like, for example, the tech sector? So I'll give you another example of an industry that really grew over the pandemic - professional and business services. This is an industry where, you know, it cannot be said that Black women are overrepresented, but there are jobs in this industry. And so, you know, one challenge is to really drill down and see, well, in what subsectors did the jobs grow in that industry, and how do Black women begin to think about pivoting to the types of new jobs that are either being created or old jobs, existing jobs where employment has expanded over the course of the pandemic?

MARTIN: That is Michelle Holder. She's a professor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is in New York. And she's a distinguished senior fellow at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Michelle Holder, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us today.

HOLDER: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.