Advocates seek more help for the black unemployed
In the battle against black unemployment, places like the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Philadelphia are ground zero. Savory aromas wafted from a big kitchen one recent day as the instructor demonstrated a fish recipe to a dozen aspiring cooks. Nearby, a mock hotel room was waiting to be cleaned. Downstairs, electrical fixtures hung, ready to be wired.
In the battle against black unemployment, places like the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Philadelphia are ground zero.
Savory aromas wafted from a big kitchen one recent day as the instructor demonstrated a fish recipe to a dozen aspiring cooks. Nearby, a mock hotel room was waiting to be cleaned. Downstairs, electrical fixtures hung, ready to be wired.
Here, the goal is "helping people help themselves" through literacy programs and training for hotel, clerical, building, retail and other jobs.
"We have to give people transferable skills," said Robert C. Nelson, president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia OIC.
There is a growing outcry among black advocates nationwide for the Obama administration to target black joblessness with similar training programs and direct job creation.
Black unemployment has climbed from 8.9 percent at the start of the recession in December 2007 to 15.6 percent in November.
By comparison, the nation's overall jobless rate has risen to 10.0 percent from 4.9 percent. The white rate climbed to 9.3 percent from 4.4 percent.
Although the gap between black and white unemployment has narrowed, there has been a 1.2 percent decline in the black labor force participation rate, more than any other group - which means that fewer blacks are even looking for work. That has held down the black unemployment rate because such "discouraged workers" are not included in unemployment statistics.
The Congressional Black Caucus recently sent a letter to President Obama asking for $139 billion in unused bank bailout funds to be spent on training programs and job-creation efforts, including jobs directly created with federal dollars.
It would be unconstitutional to designate aid or jobs specifically for blacks, so the CBC is asking for at least 10 percent of various funds to be spent in areas where 20 percent of the population is below the poverty line.
That includes much of North Philadelphia, where the OIC headquarters is located. There are 41 other nonprofit OIC offices around the country, where the focus is on learning basic trades - plus intangible "soft skills" like a positive attitude, punctuality and conflict resolution.
Philadelphia is one of 11 OIC affiliates that are part of a $22 million proposal to the Labor Department, submitted by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, to train as many as 12,000 people for jobs in health care, infrastructure improvement and renewable energy.
"Sometimes we think, 'Because I'm black I deserve a job," ' Nelson said. "No, we deserve a job if we're qualified. And who's going to qualify us? Us!"
Obama, walking a tightrope on minority issues as the nation's first black president, has long maintained that he needs to focus on improving employment for everyone, not just for blacks.
"What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need," he said in an interview Monday. "That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community."