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How Social And Economic Disparities Have Worsened Pandemic's Effects On Black Workers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed unemployment to its highest level in the U.S. since the Great Depression. Last week, another 1.87 million people filed for unemployment. That brings the total claims this spring to over 42 million. And it has disproportionately affected black workers and families. Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute says, in a recent report, that this is because of historic and ongoing social and economic injustices. And she joins us now. Welcome.

VALERIE WILSON: Thank you. Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the numbers. How much harder have black people felt the economic impact of this pandemic than other workers?

WILSON: So the way that I like to summarize what's going on in the COVID-19 economy is that there are basically three main groups of workers. The first group includes those that have lost their jobs, among the tens of millions, as you just quoted, and face economic security as a result of being without employment. The second group are those who are identified as the essential frontline workers and so have some degree of job security but face greater health insecurity. And the third group are those who are able to continue to work, largely from the safety of of their homes.

SHAPIRO: Right.

WILSON: Black workers are least likely to be in that last group.

SHAPIRO: OK.

WILSON: So you're either facing elevated economic insecurity or you're having to make difficult choices between economic security and health security.

SHAPIRO: We often hear that African Americans are more likely to be essential workers. Explain why that overrepresentation among essential workers does not protect African Americans from layoffs in this economy, why black people are overrepresented among the unemployed right now.

WILSON: So the overrepresentation among the unemployed right now is really just a continuation of a long-standing pattern of the black unemployment rate typically being double the white unemployment rate in good times and in bad. I think one of the unique features of the COVID-19 economy is that the widespread nature of things having to be shut down almost across the board has resulted in elevated employment across the board. But underlying those numbers were preexisting disparities in unemployment. There was a 2 to 1 gap in unemployment between blacks and whites before we added 10 to 12 points on top of that.

So, you know, those disparities continue. And I think in addition to that, we have to consider that - consider some of the options that people have when they lose a job and to - as a way of measuring that, we look to cash reserves available.

SHAPIRO: Right.

WILSON: And there are significant racial disparities in access to savings between black and white families.

SHAPIRO: You also write that geography plays a role. Explain what you mean by that.

WILSON: So geography plays a role in the sense that the kinds of housing structures that people live in and, therefore, the ability to practice social distancing. So we cite a statistic that shows that black families, black households, are less likely to be in single-unit, detached households and more likely to be in multiunit structures. It's also the case that black workers are more likely to live in multigenerational households. So if you happen to be an essential worker, you may be living with a parent, grandparent who, by virtue of being an older person, is at greater risk of exposure.

SHAPIRO: And so just in our last minute, how would you tie these high unemployment numbers among African Americans to the protests about police violence that we're seeing right now all over the country?

WILSON: I think the root cause behind what we see in terms of police brutality against black people, disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system and a number of these economic inequalities that I've highlighted in the labor market, they share the same root cause, and that is racism that generates racial exclusion, discrimination, exploitation and oppression. This is something that's been a part of America since its founding. And unless we decide that we are going to target and undo those harms, we will continue to see these sorts of disparities play out.

SHAPIRO: Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

WILSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.