by Wilhelmina A. Leigh, Ph.D.
June of this year will mark the third anniversary of the official end of The Great Recession, the month when the downturn bottomed out and the economy started to grow again.
With the recovery, as during the recession, however, disparities by race/ethnicity have persisted in economic outcomes such as employment, and will continue to do so unless determined efforts are made to reduce or eliminate them, and the impacts of these efforts are closely monitored.
The economic recovery is currently gaining steam. During the fourth quarter of 2011, real U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP (the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States), increased at an annual rate of 3.0 percent. This rate of growth was faster than at any point during the last year and a half and nearly equals the average annual growth rate of GDP over the last 60 years of 3.25 percent. In addition, unemployment rates have declined even for groups such as African Americans, who were not seeing much of a decline earlier in the recovery. In the wake of the recent recession, the unemployment rate for the nation peaked in October 2009 (at 10 percent), while the rate for African Americans did not reach its peak until August 2011 (at 16.7 percent). In February 2012, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 14.1 percent, while the national rate was 8.3 percent.
How can we channel the economic recovery to more completely benefit all Americans? One way is to monitor existing and new federal, state and local programs and policies for the extent to which they can and do foster economic equity among racial/ethnic groups. An analysis by PolicyLink of proposals in the 2013 Obama budget highlights programs that are promising in this regard. For example, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities—an interagency collaboration among the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, and Environmental Protection Agency—would redevelop communities to reduce barriers for low-income households to access jobs, schools and affordable housing. The Pathways Back to Work Fund, another 2013 budget proposal, would provide funding for subsidized employment and work-based training for low-income youth, the long-term unemployed and low-income adults. Among the wish list of programs that presidents’ budgets too often become, initiatives such as these should, first, be supported and then, once enacted, be monitored for their effectiveness.
Racial/ethnic economic disparities will not be lessened or eliminated without conscious action. We justify not addressing these longstanding disparities during recessions because we lack resources to do so. We cannot justify the failure to act during periods of economic growth. Thus, we should insist that such action is evident during the coming recovery. As Alan Krueger, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers noted recently, “Restoring a greater degree of fairness to the U.S. job market would be good for businesses, good for the economy and good for the country.”