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The Black unemployment rate hit a record low, but it might be too early to celebrate

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Let's take a short trip back in time.

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DONALD TRUMP: But, very importantly, for the - for Black - the best unemployment we've ever had.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ever.

RASCOE: That's then-President Donald Trump in 2020 at a roundtable for Black History Month. The economy was humming along. It was just a month before the COVID national emergency slammed on the brakes, and Black unemployment was at 6%. Three years later - a different time, a different president.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Black and Hispanic unemployment are near record lows.

RASCOE: When President Joe Biden said that last February, Black unemployment was 5.7%. A month later, it hit a record low of 5%, though still higher than the overall unemployment rate of 3.5%. So is this a victory? Gary Hoover is a professor of economics at Tulane University and studies how race, economics and public policy intersect. He goes by Hoove (ph), and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

GARY HOOVER: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So let's start there. Like, should the U.S. take a victory lap over a 5% Black unemployment rate?

HOOVER: I think we could take a victory lap. I think it would probably be a bit premature, and there are still complications to that number. But it is something. I guess the question is, is that the best it's going to ever get?

RASCOE: Well, because the thing about the Black unemployment rate is that it is stubbornly higher than the overall employment rate. Is that still the case? And why is that the case?

HOOVER: Right. And that's why I would be cautious about taking a victory lap in that even though Black unemployment is at its lowest ever, it is still higher, and stubbornly so, which would mean that there's probably something systemic going on in that if this is the best we're ever going to be able to do to get Black unemployment to be a bit less than double that of white unemployment, then I would probably be a bit more cautious about calling this a slam dunk.

RASCOE: What can you tell about the quality of the jobs that people have and the industries that Black people tend to dominate?

HOOVER: Right. Well, it's going to be in the service industries, and therein is one of the problems. We're not talking about high-end tech jobs here. We're talking about jobs in food service industry that are going to be lower on the wage distribution. So you're going to have a job - questionable whether or not that job is going to be full-time and the wage is going to be lower.

RASCOE: How does the gig economy come into play about that? Because people can do rideshares and deliveries if they can't find a job at a food service place or things like that. Like, so how does that impact this?

HOOVER: Right. And we have a thing of people being unemployed, but there's also underemployment in that even if you did have a job, it's not enough. It's not paying a wage that allows you to sufficiently pay all of your bills. And so you have to supplement that job with some type of part-time/gig employment. And that is not going to show up in any statistics that we're measuring but matters greatly.

RASCOE: Are there places, cities in the U.S., where Black unemployment - even though, you know, overall, it's lower, it's, like, extremely high, especially when you start breaking it down by gender? Why is it worse in urban areas?

HOOVER: We're finding less opportunities for employment, and we're also finding that the educational differences that are happening, as you mentioned, as it relates to gender, are even more so amplified.

RASCOE: I am sure that Biden and Trump, who both are going to be running for president in 2024, are going to take credit for Black employment gains during their tenures. Are either of them, like, responsible for this?

HOOVER: Well, it's really, really hard to say that one person or one, you know, body of persons are responsible for what's happening here. If you didn't have access to PPP money during the recession, what were you going to do but seek employment? Given that there's a difference in savings rates and there's a difference in household wealth, Blacks were going to be less likely to be able to weather the pandemic storm. They had no other alternative because they didn't have resources to fall back on.

RASCOE: So they had to get out there and work.

HOOVER: Yeah. What else were they going to do?

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

HOOVER: So you're taking credit that people have - without any real savings, have to go and find some way to survive. You're going to take credit for that? Questionable. But I think they will...

RASCOE: Yes (laughter).

HOOVER: ...By the way. I don't know if it's deserved. I think they absolutely will do that.

RASCOE: That's Gary Hoover, or Hoove. He is a professor of economics at Tulane University. Thank you so much for joining us.

HOOVER: Ma'am, thank you. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEETWOOD MAC'S "JIGSAW PUZZLE BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.