Minority job picture called bad

Forum speakers call on the state for help and say data undercount the jobless.

Staff WriterApril 15, 2010 

— Community organizers implored Gov. Bev Perdue and other state officials Wednesday to address the dire economic straits of minorities and others who have been disproportionately affected by the recession.

Speakers at a "people's summit" in Raleigh said the unemployment rate among African-Americans and Hispanics might be twice as high as the 11.2 percent statewide average. The event was organized by Historic Thousands on Jones Street, a group of about 90 members, including the NAACP, N.C. Justice Center, AFL-CIO and N.C. Institute for Minority Economic Development.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the statewide jobless rate in 2009 for African-Americans was 14.2 percent; for Hispanics, 12.2 percent.

Perdue, who attended a portion of the morning meeting at the Martin Street Baptist Church, said she also questioned the accuracy of the federal data.

"I think it's much higher," Perdue said. "You can't trust any of these unemployment figures."

The unemployment rates don't include people who have given up and stopped looking for work, and some contend that unreported contingent is much larger among groups that are economically disadvantaged.

The organizations set out a 14-point policy agenda, some of which the state is already pursuing. Their goals include:

Passage of a federal jobs bill now pending in Congress.

Extension of unemployment benefits.

Accelerating the federally funded home-weatherization program.

Expanding summer youth job programs.

And removing barriers for job seekers with criminal records.

Several community activists praised stimulus subsidies, saying that "trickle down" economics has failed and must be bolstered with a "bottom-up approach" that expands governmental safety nets for the needy.

To press their point, the community organizations brought forth a half-dozen unemployed citizens to tell their stories. The speakers included men and women, whites and blacks, as well as blue collar and white collar workers who have been jobless for months.

Travon Garrett, 21, who lives with his mother in Greensboro, has been unemployed since he lost his job in demolition and asbestos abatement two years ago.

"I'm cutting grass and washing cars and things," Garrett said. "That's stuff people do for extra money."

Perdue acknowledged the state has fallen behind in its home-weatherization efforts. The $132 million in stimulus money funding the weatherization program in this state is supposed to create jobs as well as help reduce energy bills for the poor.

Dempsey Benton, who oversees the program as head of the Office of Economic Recovery & Investment, told the several dozen people in attendance that the state was approved for federal jobs grants last year and hired about 970 people in maintenance, administration and similar temporary jobs. This month, the state was approved for another grant and will hire about 270 people to help residents get financial assistance and other government aid.

One of the jobless speakers, Steve Holmes, 39, is a software developer who lives in Raleigh and lost his job last year at SAS, the Cary software firm. He has two children at home and said the family was living off double unemployment benefits for months after his wife lost her job as a project manager at a clinical trials company. She recently found a job, but Holmes said his prospects are slim in a region awash with unemployed tech workers.

"There are thousands of résumés submitted when jobs are posted," Holmes said. "It's really competitive ... and it kills your morale."

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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