Pennsylvania has a problem.
It’s not a unique problem, nor is it an unprecedented one. Other states, and the country at large, face a similar issue, and the problem consistently presents itself during periods of economic downturn.
But the fact that this is a recurring and widespread issue should be of comfort to no one.
The problem in question is racial disparity in unemployment. If that strikes you as an overly academic thing to worry about, please let me rephrase: Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims data suggests that Pennsylvania’s White workers are recovering far more quickly from the recession than Pennsylvania’s Black workers, just as they are nationally, just as they have in previous recessions, including the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
The chart below shows the estimated UI claims rate by race for the state of Pennsylvania. (A similar pattern of disparity emerges in national survey-based unemployment numbers, which was reinforced in today's BLS Employment Situation report.)
Notes: These rates are estimated by taking PA UI Claims over 2019 Q2 Quarterly Workforce Indicators data. This does not include PUA claims, which are tracked through a separate program for which detailed data is not made public. These estimates also do not include individuals who are unemployed but have not filed/received unemployment insurance, which likely means that these estimates underrepresent the level of disparity in total unemployment.
Unemployment data is a particularly useful indicator during periods of acute economic distress, for unlike many other economic indicators, unemployment data tends to be released with both recency and regularity. In this way, in addition to being in itself an important piece of the economic puzzle, unemployment data is also a proxy for longer-term outcomes that are not as easily measured.
The disparity in unemployment that Black Americans faced during and following the Great Recession corresponded to a severe, long-term loss of wealth, which dramatically increased wealth disparity in the United States. There is every indication that the same pattern is repeating itself now. Meanwhile, Black Americans are simultaneously facing disproportionate health effects, including disproportionately high rates of death, from COVID-19.
Pennsylvania (and the US at large) must act with urgency and with significant interventions if it is going to buck these trends. Its major cities — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, my home — need to lead the way, for they, like cities around the country, are the epicenters of these disparities. There is no excuse to do anything less.
As our society continues to grapple with racial inequality, we must maintain a focus on economic justice.
More broadly, as our society continues to grapple with racial inequality, we must maintain a focus on economic justice. At the end of August, many thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to protest racial inequality on the anniversary of the famous 1963 March (which is now best known for being the occasion for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech). The primary purpose of the 1963 March was to demand economic justice. It was the “March for Jobs and Freedom.” In the past 57 years, we have made embarrassingly little progress.