I recently re-read Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man. If you don’t know Invisible Man, it’s about a nameless African American man who spends his life underground, living in a waterless section of a sewer, unseen by the world. Out of sight means out of mind.
This classic work of fiction and imagination is a metaphor for the millions of invisible people in America – those of us on the margins of the economy.
We’re so invisible that so-called economic analyses and forecasts often discount us and the standard economic indicators become meaningless.
Take today’s jobs report, for example, which found that employers added 467,000 jobs in January. The latest headlines admiringly tout job gains amid the Omicron surge, lauding this as a victory for the president. The overall unemployment rate is at 4.0 percent.
Meanwhile, in your community, you see the same soul-crushing unemployment, the same bad housing, the same struggles to pay for food. Not much has changed.
I often have had this experience, when I lived in underserved communities with low-performing schools, high unemployment and pervasive illnesses related to stress and poverty.
The incongruity isn’t always your perception. It’s the stilted way information is packaged.
You’re left wondering why you haven’t seen much change relative to your circumstances. How come the job growth hasn’t benefited you? And although you’re consistently looking for work, the employment opportunities are still scarce, with low pay and no benefits.
The problem may be that you’re Black. Even worse if you’re also a woman.
Because mainstream news headlines are directed at mostly white audiences, they normalize the experiences of white workers. The statistics show that the so-called economic recovery has been successful for white men. For others, the picture is less rosy.
The Black-white unemployment gap remains about 2 to 1, with the unemployment rate for Black men at 7.1 percent, and for Black women at 5.8 percent.
One analysis of recent economic trends by race and gender by Community Change concluded that the year 2021 ended with white workers almost returning to their pre-pandemic levels of unemployment, while workers of color have a ways to go before they return to where they were before the pandemic began, which was still in a worse place relative to white workers.
While many people of color are finally returning to the workforce, they are only just starting to recover, while we’re well into the white jobs recovery. Not to mention, these workers are returning during some of the most dangerous months of the pandemic surge and into occupations where they are more likely to face COVID exposure.
And while we’ve recovered about 87 percent of the 22 million jobs lost during the crisis, pre-pandemic labor market conditions were already stacked against people of color. So even returning to the status quo would leave our communities at a disadvantage.
That’s a truer picture of our economy that needs to be highlighted more often if we’re going to create long term solutions that get at the root of the problem.
One NBC news story from October described a situation that too many of us know too well: A Black woman in Mississippi, 24-year-old single mother Ashley Brown, who was employed for a company providing home care to the elderly. But she contracted COVID, making her have to quarantine for several weeks. When she returned, her shifts had been reassigned to other employees. She lost significant income. Ashley Brown’s hours have never adequately picked back up. Brown laments the career she lost, saying “That’s the only job that works around my kids’ schedules.”
Her story illustrates the kind of issues that keep Black women underemployed during periods of economic expansion.
Blacks workers are overrepresented in essential positions – which increases their vulnerability to COVID and job insecurity. Kate Bahn, chief economist at the Washington Center for Economic Growth, explains: “They’re both facing worse opportunities because of structural racism, as well as the unique factors related to the pandemic that disproportionately put them in positions of risk.”
And yet, we are underrepresented in coverage of how well the country is doing economically. Made invisible, like the unnamed Black man in Ellison’s novel.
The reality is that the unemployment rate for people of color stays doubly high, regardless of their skill and education level, or whether the reports about the overall economy show an upturn, or a downturn. It’s been that way since the federal government began tracking data by race.
The full story of the lives of all Americans shows that we need major investments in workers, in job security, in employment opportunities and in childcare. No one would be invisible in a land of equal opportunity.