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Stimulus Funds Must Acknowledge Employment Gap

Dennis Parker,
Former Director,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
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September 7, 2009

(Also published on Daily Kos.)

Widely regarded as the last opportunity to enjoy summer with a three-day weekend of cookouts and trips to the beach, Labor Day, the United States Department of Labor’s website informs us, was originally intended as “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country”. Ironically, this year’s tribute comes in the form of the announcement that the national unemployment rate has reached 9.7 percent, its highest level in 26 years. The increasing unemployment rate is one of the most disturbing results of the economic recession which became the subject of newspaper articles a little more than a year ago.

The consequences of the current economic crisis are serious for the nation as a whole but are particularly critical for communities of color. On its website,, in which the ACLU participates as a partner, the Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity reports that although the nation has been in a recession for a little more than a year, communities of color have been experiencing a recession for nearly five years and, in the course of the last year, have moved into a depression. If the terms “recession” and “depression” are too abstract, the unemployment statistics are clear and concrete. While the rest of the country watches apprehensively as overall unemployment figures approach 10 percent, communities of color have been experiencing double-digit unemployment for some time.

In July, 2009, Latino unemployment levels stood at 12.2 percent while the unemployment rate of African-Americans was 14.7 percent. Sadly, even being employed is no guarantee of opportunity for people of color because of the fact that they are far more likely to be employed in low-wage jobs. For these workers, many of whom are immigrants, wage theft and exploitation runs rampant. Three discrete groups are particularly vulnerable to abuse, discrimination, and human rights violations (PDF): domestic and agricultural workers, temporary workers (or guestworkers), and undocumented workers.

Not all of the news is bad, however. In fact, the increase in the unemployment rate appears to be slowing enough for Jared Bernstein, one of Vice President Joe Biden’s economic advisors, to remark that “[t]he overall message in these numbers is that we’re headed in the right direction but we’re far from out of the woods.” Many economists believe that the infusion of federal stimulus funds may have insulated the economy from even more serious negative consequences.

If that is true, it is especially important that the positive effects of stimulus funds be felt by everyone in the nation, particularly those segments of the population who started the recession behind the rest of the nation and have been particularly battered by the effects of the recession. For that reason, the website was created to facilitate the effort to use stimulus funding as a means of assuring equal opportunity for all.

Labor Day serves as a reminder of the way that employment remains an area in which there is inequality and by which “the strength, prosperity and well-being of the nation” can be strengthened and reinforced by efforts to assure that all communities are given the opportunity to enjoy the full benefits of their labor.

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