The Policy Obama and Cain Agree on: Benign Neglect
Policy + Politics

The Policy Obama and Cain Agree on: Benign Neglect

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Should African-Americans and other minorities beset  with staggering, historic unemployment rates  be granted special government assistance to level the playing field with whites? Black unemployment last month was at a Depression-level  16 percent, or twice the 8 percent rate among whites. Things were only slightly better for Latinos, at 11.3 percent unemployment.

Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza  CEO, an African-American seeking the GOP presidential nomination, insisted over the weekend that the playing field is already plenty level and that many blacks are using racism as an excuse for “not being able to achieve what they want to achieve.”  While acknowledging a racial economic gap exacerbated by differences in education  and  the geographic concentrations of blacks in failing cities, Cain said the key to helping unemployed blacks is growing the  economy – not  handing out special deals.

 Cain, the new darling of the Tea Party who has surged  in the polls,  sounded oddly like President Obama,  who has  repeatedly made it clear that his race would not shape his economic policies, and that a “rising economic tide” for America will “lift all boats,” including those of blacks. During a speech at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner last month, Obama lectured the African-American lawmakers and activists in the audience  to “Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” and get behind his jobs package.

Obama’s message was born of his centrist Democratic leanings and his political dilemma in not being able or willing to show favoritism to black voters who put him over the top in key primary races in 2008. “The president obviously is in a very difficult position because he has made it a point . . . that he is not a black President but president of all the people,”  Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, told The Fiscal Times Monday. “He’s really caught in a very tough position between being seen as someone who provides special benefits to African Americans and ignoring their unique plight completely.”

For Cain, the ebullient, up-by-his-bootstraps  multi-millionaire businessman,  there  is virtually no political downside to his tough message for the tens of millions of unemployed blacks and Hispanics. It is a message that resonates with many Republican conservatives who are demanding a downsizing of government and an end to federal  interventionism  in the economy and health care system.

“Sky-high unemployment among young African-Americans and Hispanics is often ignored by Republicans, except to point out how Obama has failed,” noted Lawrence Sabato, a University of Virginia political expert. “The plight of working minorities has little resonance during the GOP primary season.

After months of carping, some black lawmakers and analysts have conceded that Obama’s jobs legislation will indirectly help unemployed minorities by expanding the job base by an estimated 1.5 million jobs or more.  But without a strong federal jobs program targeted to minorities, the pain of very high unemployment is likely to be long lasting for most of America’s metropolitan blacks. 

“African Americans are very proud that there is an African American man who is the most powerful man in the world, and they hold on to that with everything they possibly can, but it’s starting to slip because of the pain of the American community,” Rep. Maxine Waters posts, D-Calif., said last month.

In 2007, before the recession,  Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Louis metropolitan areas all had black unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher, according to a recent study by the liberal leaning Economic Policy Institute.  In 2010, Detroit, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis all had black unemployment rates of 20 percent or higher, comparable to the peak national unemployment rates during the Great Depression of the 1930. 

Meanwhile, in 2007, the Sun Belt metropolitan areas of Charlotte, Miami, Tampa, and Las Vegas all had black unemployment rates below the national rate for blacks. By 2010, these Sun Belt metropolitan areas had unemployment rates that were above the national black rate and were among the highest rates of all the metropolitan areas examined.

In Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, La., blacks were more than three times as likely to be unemployed as whites in 2010. Milwaukee had the biggest disparity with a black-to-white unemployment rate ratio of 3.8-to-1.

Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute and chief author of the study, said that even when one compares black and white workers in the same age range and same education, “You still see pretty significant gaps in unemployment rates."

“There is very strong evidence that racial discrimination continues to play a role in the American labor market,” Austin told The Fiscal Times. “It’s not only a matter of racial discrimination, but there is very strong evidence that race continues to matter today significantly.”

Despite compelling historic data of a huge racial gap in employment figures, Congress and the White House have done little to address the disparities since enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978.

While some recent programs have targeted industries that employ a large number of minority workers – the auto bailout, for example – the aid is aimed at the entire sector, not groups within it. The same can be said of federal job training and unemployment assistance programs, which are designed to help displaced, unemployed and never-employed workers.

“There are not a lot of programs that target minorities,” said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and former chief economist at the Labor Department. “There are programs that traditionally have helped minorities in disproportionate numbers.”

And those are the jobs programs that have come under the heaviest fire from Republican hopefuls. Citing a Government Accountability Office report, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s detailed blueprint for the economy released in early September blasted the 47 existing job training programs across a half dozen federal agencies as duplicative and unproven. He called for combining the programs into block grants to the states, and shrinking their overall funding.

“The sprawling federal network of redundant bureaucracies should be dismantled and the funds used for better purposes,” the blueprint said. He would also turn unemployment insurance into personal training accounts, which individuals could use to enroll in training programs or subsidize employers who hire them. The blueprint touts the George Works program, which critics say has subsidized employers who hire the unemployed for semi-skilled jobs that require little in the way of training.