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For the second consecutive month Black unemployment has increased

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Unemployment among Black workers is rising. Nationally, unemployment remains at a historically low figure of about 3.5%, but that figure jumps to 6% for Black workers. That marks a second consecutive monthly increase in Black unemployment. For a closer look at these numbers, we've called Kate Bahn. She focuses on research about low-wage workers at the Urban Institute. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

KATE BAHN: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: I mean, of course, I want to know what could be driving the rise in unemployment among Black workers. But first, I just want to be sure that two months of increases is enough to identify a possible trend. Is it?

BAHN: Well, this is the key point because I think it may not be. When we look at the one-month, the six-month, the nine-month and the 12-month figures, those are not statistically significant in the data. So what this might suggest, really, is that we had some noise in the positive direction about three months ago and some noise in the negative direction the past two months, but it's still ultimately just noisy data. I don't want to say that doesn't mean 6% isn't troubling, but it still seems to be noise.

MARTIN: Well, OK, so that's helpful. But what could be driving that? Let's - assuming, just for the sake of argument, that this is something that we need to keep an eye on, what could be driving it?

BAHN: Well, a key thing to keep in mind - in particular, you know, we know the Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates to try to address inflation. And when the Federal Reserve takes actions like that, it does tend to disproportionately impact workers who face more barriers to opportunity, who are more marginalized. And so that means, plainly put, that when the Federal Reserve keeps raising interest rates, that will disproportionately hurt Black workers. So I think that's really what we want to keep our eye on.

MARTIN: More broadly, has the post-pandemic jobs recovery been different for Black workers than for other workers?

BAHN: It has been. So, you know, when you look at the unemployment, we want to keep an eye on that for those reasons about the Fed that I just talked, but when you look at a lot of other data on what is happening with Black workers in the labor market in this really remarkable recovery, it is actually looking pretty good. And so two data points I want to point out is that the employment rate of Black workers is currently only a half percentage point below that of white workers. So still lower than white workers, but that's actually a historic convergence. The employment rate of Black workers and white workers is the closest that it's ever been.

And then the second data point I want to bring up is their labor force participation rate. And so that is all workers who are both working and looking for work. And that has always lagged for Black workers, historically. It looked like it was converging prior to the pandemic. In the pandemic, Black workers were hit much worse. They had much worse unemployment outcomes. They had a little bit of lagging in the initial recovery, but now, actually, labor force participation for Black workers is higher than that of white workers. It has swapped places that direction. And that is - like, that is really remarkable. I don't want to understate that, that the fact that labor force participation is higher for Black workers than white workers right now is really remarkable.

MARTIN: So interesting. So before we let you go, are Black workers in a better position now to weather what could be another downturn?

BAHN: Well, it takes two things for it to be - have good employment outcomes. It takes really good market forces. We certainly have those. But we also need institutional change to ensure that workers who have been historically excluded, like Black workers, can share in the gains of the economy. And so we have those market forces right now, but we don't have those institutional changes yet. And so my fear is if we have a downturn, we'll basically reverse a lot of these recent gains. What we really need is policy change to ensure that Black workers are on the same footing as white workers.

MARTIN: That is Kate Bahn of the Urban Institute. Kate, thanks so much for sharing this research with us.

BAHN: Great. Thank you so much. Have a good day.

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