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Why the Black unemployment rate will be key for Biden economic team

Ben Werschkul
·Senior Producer and Writer
·5 min read

President Biden’s first jobs report is coming Feb. 5, covering the first 11 days of his presidency and the last 20 of Donald Trump’s.

The early median forecast for the January report is growth of around 100,000 jobs.

The White House will surely tout any positive news, but a number that exceeds expectations may also undercut the administration’s case for a large $1.9 trillion economic relief bill.

And Biden’s economic team has long tried to direct attention toward different jobs metrics beyond the overall unemployment rate number. They’re increasingly focusing on more detailed benchmarks like the Black unemployment rate and the unemployment rate by gender.

Cecilia Rouse, Biden’s nominee to head the Council of Economic Advisers, laid out her approach last week during her Senate confirmation hearing.

Chair of Council of Economic Advisers nominee Cecilia Rouse speaks after US President-elect Joe Biden (R) announced his economic team at The Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 1, 2020. (Photo by Chandan KHANNA / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden announced his economic team - including Chair of Council of Economic Advisers nominee Cecilia Rouse - in December. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

“Too often economists focus on average outcomes, instead of examining a range of outcomes,” Rouse told lawmakers. Broad analysis often “fails to capture the experience of the many people who are left behind, particularly people of color.”

‘You see a different story’

In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the U.S., the Black unemployment (seasonally adjusted) rate stood at 6.0%, exactly double the 3.0% white unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In December 2020, the unemployment rate for white Americans was 6.0% while the Black unemployment rate was 9.9%.

When you break down the jobs picture by gender or race, “you see a different story,” says Diana Boesch, policy analyst focused on women’s economic security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

The last unemployment report showed 140,000 jobs lost in December. But the brunt was borne entirely by women, who lost 156,000 jobs. Men actually gained 16,000 jobs. There is also the question of how much the unemployment rate is hiding; 154,000 Black women dropped out of the labor force in December, says Boesch.

And the arrows point in different directions for different groups. Between November and December of 2020, the white unemployment rate was largely flat, moving from 5.9% to 6.0%. By contrast, the Hispanic unemployment rate jumped from 8.4% to 9.3%, while the Black unemployment rate fell from 10.3% to 9.9%.

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The Asian unemployment rate is yet another story. In March 2020, as the pandemic was taking hold, the Asian unemployment rate was 4.1% and roughly in line with the unemployment rate for whites (3.9%) and the overall national rate (4.4%). But during the early months of the pandemic, more Asian-Americans lost jobs relative to other groups, peaking at 14.9% in May 2020 (vs. 12.3% for white Americans) before dropping significantly in recent months. In December the Asian unemployment rate was a relatively low 5.9%.

Boesch has found that women in particular have been harmed the most during the coronavirus-induced recession. Women, and especially women of color, have lost a total of 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic, 1 million more than men, she says.

‘A number of pieces of the package’

The president’s Council of Economic Advisers will have a key role in shaping how Biden and his administration digest and present the number. They traditionally present the president with the data late on Thursday ahead of its release the next morning.

During her confirmation hearing on Jan. 28, Rouse suggested focusing on a range of data points to get a full and fair picture of the labor market: In addition to race and gender, she said factors like geographic diversity and joblessness in rural areas would also be scrutinized, calling them “an important part of that mosaic."

One of Rouse’s likely colleagues is Jared Bernstein, a long-time Biden economic adviser. He currently sits on the Council and previously co-wrote a policy brief arguing that the Fed should be focused on the Black unemployment rate.

“The Fed should consider targeting not the overall unemployment rate, but the Black rate,” Bernstein wrote alongside a colleague, Janelle Jones, who recently joined the Biden administration at the Department of Labor.

 Jared Bernstein, appointed to be a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, speaks as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announces nominees and appointees to serve on his economic policy team at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Jared Bernstein is a current member of the Council of Economic Advisers and served as Joe Biden's chief economist during the Obama administration. (REUTERS/Leah Millis)

Rising inequality is another key factor: Heather Boushey, also on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Yahoo Finance that she is “excited that there are a number of pieces of the package that are really focused on folks at the bottom of the income distribution.”

“We know that the lower we can get unemployment, the better that is for all workers,” she said.

When he was president, Trump touted different measures of unemployment when it reflected positively on his administration. In one memorable example, Trump tweeted on Aug. 6, 2019, that he is "the least racist person," citing as evidence the fact that "Black, Hispanic and Asian Unemployment is the lowest (BEST) in the history of the United States!"

According to thetrumparchive.com – which has archived the president's now-suspended tweets – Trump's mentions of Black unemployment dropped off after the pandemic took hold and made the picture much less rosy.

The question for Biden and his team will be how to balance any good news with other more troubling notes that might help them make the case for their recovery package.

“It's a fine line to walk,” says Boesch. “I'm glad I'm not in communications, so I don't have to do it myself.”

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

Read more:

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