In the battle against black unemployment, places like the Opportunities Industrialization Center are ground zero.
Savory aromas wafted from a king-size 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 from an exposed wall, 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 CEO of the Philadelphia OIC.
There is a growing outcry among black advocates for the Obama administration to target black joblessness with similar training programs and direct job creation.
Black unemployment has climbed from 8.9 percent to 15.6 percent since the recession began in December 2007. In comparison, the nation's overall rate has risen from 4.9 to 10.0 percent. The white rate climbed from 4.4 percent to 9.3 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 Barack Obama asking for $139 billion in unused bank bailout funds to be spent on a long list of 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.
"I cannot pass laws that say 'I'm just helping black folks.' I'm the president of the entire United States," Obama told American Urban Radio Networks on Monday. "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. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community."
Obama recently proposed some small business tax credits and tax breaks to encourage hiring. A $174 billion jobs package approved Wednesday by the House includes $2 billion for job training, summer jobs for teenagers and Americorps.
But the disproportionate lack of skills and education among blacks requires a unique solution, Nelson said.
"I'm in a city where there's a 45 percent dropout rate for black and Hispanic students," Nelson said. "We have to go well beyond saying, 'Here's a job.' We are the products of a failed public school system, of institutional racism. We have to direct dollars to organizations and community groups who serve at-risk folks."
Others say the best way to help unemployed blacks is not through job training programs, but by creating jobs in the private sector through tax breaks and lowering the minimum wage.
"These (job training) programs aren't usually worth much," said June O'Neill, an economics professor at Baruch College and former director of the Congressional Budget Office. She said they are often distributed based on politics rather than need and offer training that is not useful.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, says lowering the minimum wage would immediately boost black employment. And instead of jobs funded by the federal government, focusing on education is a better idea, she said.
"About 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, they have a tough time not just getting an education, but it's hard for their parents to make sure they do their homework, to make sure they succeed ... those children have a hard time getting skills," she said.
But numerous studies show that when white and black workers with identical qualifications apply to the same job, "they consistently favor the white applicants, even though the black applicants are equally qualified," said Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute.
Among workers with a college education, for example, blacks have a higher unemployment rate, which shows that discrimination is still a major barrier to black employment, said Austin, author of a recent paper titled "Getting Good Jobs to America's People of Color."
He thought the CBC proposals would help close the black-white unemployment gap, "but I don't know what they have in there to address discrimination."
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