Study paints grim employment picture for black men in N.O.

More than half of working-age African American men in New Orleans were unemployed in 2011, a proportion that grew steadily in the past three decades as broad economic changes tilted to favor more educated workers, according to a new report from Loyola University.

The study, which pulls together data from the U.S. Census Bureau, notes that the percentage of black men in New Orleans with an associate’s degree or higher has essentially stagnated at just 15 percent since 1980, leaving the city’s black population at a severe disadvantage as jobs shift away from sectors like manufacturing and transportation to professional services like finance.

The new data reflect long-standing national trends with repercussions that have been readily apparent in New Orleans for years. But the report drove home stark realities that local political and civic leaders will have to face if they want to keep the local economy growing and restore the city’s status as a regional player.

The report came just a few days after Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and the New Orleans Business Alliance released a five-year strategic plan for attracting better-paying jobs to the city. The Alliance’s president, Rod Miller, cited the Loyola study during the unveiling on Monday, calling the numbers “disturbing.”

Erika McConduit, the interim president of the local Urban League, brought up the study a day later, telling New Orleans City Council members to keep the results in mind as they discuss work-force issues. “I want us to continuously lift up those figures,” she said.

The report itself points out that black men make up more than a quarter of the city’s working-age population and concludes: “If New Orleans is to substantially reverse decades of economic decline, high crime rates, and a shrinking city tax base, then greater educational attainment and economic progress for African American men will be critical.”

The effort to improve public education in New Orleans has been a decades-long struggle, culminating in a controversial state-takeover of the city’s public school system after Hurricane Katrina and a dramatic shift toward independent charter schools.

Supporters of the state’s Recovery School District say the experiment is working, pointing to climbing test scores and high school graduation rates, but there’s been no comprehensive look at whether more students are going on to earn higher degrees and find well-paying jobs in the city.

The new study, published by Loyola’s Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy, catalogues a decline in the economic fortunes of black New Orleanians beginning in 1980.

At that time, 63 percent of working-age black men had jobs, 7 percent were unemployed and 30 percent had simply dropped out of the work force, a category that includes those in prison or who have stopped looking for work.

By 2000, the combined proportion of black men in New Orleans who were either unemployed or out of the labor force had climbed to 48 percent, and by 2011, it had reached 52 percent.

White working-age men in the city are also less likely to be employed than they were in 1980, but just 25 percent were unemployed or out of the work force in 2011.

The study’s authors point out that traditionally male-dominated trades in New Orleans – construction, manufacturing, transportation and others – saw almost 55,000 jobs disappear between 1980 and 2004, a 60 percent drop.

Black men suffered disproportionately because they were more likely to be employed in those industries than white men and because fewer had higher degrees that could help them land white-collar jobs.

The percentage of white men with an associate’s degree or higher in New Orleans climbed from 46 percent to 66 percent between 1980 and 2011; for black men the proportion remained steady at 15 percent.

A growing tourism industry in New Orleans helped alleviate the unemployment somewhat, the report notes, but with an average salary of just $26,000, most jobs in the industry pay “too little to support the basic expenses of one person living alone,” let alone a family.

The study’s lead author, Petrice Sams-Abiodun of the Lindy Boggs center, said the data should form a starting point to talk about the broader implications for local families and the business community.

“Many of these men are the fathers or our children or future fathers,” she said.

“This is what creates the cycle of poverty that we’re seeing.”