Black men hit hard by unemployment in Milwaukee

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009; A03

MILWAUKEE -- Radolph Matthews was taught that hope starts at home. He followed the path his strict father set out and checked all the right boxes. But there he was last week on his way to cash an unemployment check -- $388. He ran the numbers through his head -- $200 for the cellphone bill, $60 for gas for the truck and the rest for food for nine people.

"I thought, I got my MBA, I'm set. I graduated with honors. I'm perfect. All of a sudden all of that was snatched from up under me," said Matthews, whose $60,000-a-year job at a nonprofit group was eliminated two months ago. "It's days before Christmas. I have four babies in the house."

At this moment, Milwaukee is a hauntingly jobless place for African Americans, who are more likely to be out of work than whites, Hispanics or Asian Americans. It's a reality reflected in the Matthews home, where Radolph's wife, Daniela, is the family's provider. His mother-in-law is disabled. His wife's sister has a newborn and is unemployed, and his wife's brother, who stays with them sometimes, also has no job.

For black people in Wisconsin, the jobless numbers reached a new high in October, the month Matthews lost his job. The unemployment rate for African Americans surpassed that of every other state, reaching an average of 22 percent for the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, the unemployment rate is 10 percent, but according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, nearly one out of every two black men in Milwaukee is not working, compared with 18.1 percent of white men and 22.1 percent of Hispanic men.

Unemployment or fear of it consumes conversations in corners of this city of 600,000, and it sounds nothing like the talk about jobs in Washington.

The same day Matthews cashed his unemployment check, President Obama stood outside a Home Depot in Alexandria pushing for tax rebates for home energy-efficiency renovations -- an idea dubbed "cash for caulkers." The next day, House members cast a largely symbolic vote on a $150 billion jobs package that won't be debated until next year. The Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, continued to prod the White House and Congress to do more for unemployed black people, spending a late night on the House floor reading flowery resolutions to an empty chamber about their districts' troubles.

Milwaukee's jobless are wrestling with those troubles. Four times the usual number of people are showing up at the emergency food pantry saying they recently lost their jobs. A training program promoting "green" jobs for women and minorities has 30 slots but nearly 150 applicants. And Matthews, who has applied for more than 45 jobs each week for the past three weeks, says his advanced degree hasn't eased his search.

In interviews with more than 30 African Americans here, the emotions among the jobless ranged from deflated to defiant, angry to hopeless. Nearly all said their frustrations have not affected their support for Obama. Most blamed Wall Street or the Bush administration for the deteriorating economy, though some said they think Obama should do more to create jobs. A few sided with members of the black caucus who have accused the president and those around him of not being sensitive to the higher unemployment rates among blacks.

All the same, the long-standing problem of joblessness among blacks in Milwaukee -- only intensified by this latest recession -- holds opportunity and fear for the people here. There is some hope that the federal government will find a way to spur job creation, and there is fear that the rest of the country will recover, leaving chronically jobless communities jobless.

That's what scares Vanessa Luster, an unemployed 42-year-old mother of two sons. On Tuesday she applied for technical school. On Wednesday she applied for food stamps.

"It's a mess out here," she said, standing inside the Milwaukee Hunger Task Force office.

Luster, who was born in the city, said her parents had a more stable life. Her mother worked off and on at the post office. Her stepdad worked in cutting and leather tanning. Government and manufacturing jobs were the way to a solid middle-class life for Luster's family and many other black families.

Everyone has lamented the havoc wreaked by deindustrialization, but Luster points out that right now the post office isn't hiring, either. She applied there recently.

"He should send more help to the community," Luster said of Obama before heading out into subzero weather.

* * *

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a two-term Democrat who recently announced his candidacy for governor, remembers a time when a worker could quit a first-shift job and have another by the third shift. "We know that this is a big problem," he said of the double-digit black unemployment rate.

The city is dotted with reminders of its boom days. There is the massive, hollow A.O. Smith plant that stretches from 27th Street all the way to 35th Street in the center of the black community. In the early 1980s, it employed more than 5,500 workers, said Michael Rosen, an economics professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. The work began to peter out in the 1990s, and the plant closed in 2006.

Last week, the city bought the property with plans to turn it into an office park. What concerns Barrett is that not enough people have the skills for the jobs that will come. To deal with the problem, he is trying many "micro-solutions to macro-problems."

Last week, the city, in partnership with a local nonprofit group, held an informational session for an urban forestry course in its green-jobs program, funded in part by federal stimulus money. It promises to pay 30 minorities and women $12.76 an hour for six months while they train to become licensed arborists.

At the session, for which 46 men and two women were crammed into a room, one man said: "Say you don't make the cut. What y'all offering then?" He looked around. "Obviously all of us aren't going to get hired."

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said questions like his are the reason she joined other members of the black caucus in a boycott of one of Obama's legislative priorities. "We wanted to punctuate what we see is a serious risk in allowing the entire minority community to entirely collapse," she said.

Obama has rejected the idea that his administration should target specific groups, saying that fixing the broader economy will help everyone, including African Americans. Moore, whose father made his living dumping vats of molten steel in a foundry, testily disagrees. "He's made statements that's he's going to try to resist making this about race," Moore said. "Well, that's fine. Let's target the poorest, and we are sure to reach our constituents."

But the struggle over unemployment and whether Obama is doing enough is more complex for some. Elizabeth Coggs, who is part of one of the state's prominent black political families and a county supervisor in Milwaukee, said, "Everybody wants him to pull a rabbit out of a hat in a year." A few minutes later, she complained that jobs funded by the stimulus program aren't trickling down.

Lauri Wynn, a retired schoolteacher who once headed the state teachers union, feels the same kind of contradiction. She said Obama "is enough to make the worst of us proud." But when she looks at her hometown, she is angry and wonders whether his historic presidency will change anything there.

"Should we put our hope in Obama?" Wynn asked herself. "I don't know."

* * *

Ralph Hollman, who has led the local Urban League chapter for seven years, said a pervasive level of unemployment has become the community's "silent destroyer," leading to disparities in health outcomes, incarceration rates, educational achievement and other issues. In this economic crisis, he sees three groups of unemployed blacks: the chronically unemployed with little education and job training; the recently unemployed; and the disproportionate number of black men in the city who have felony convictions that effectively bar them from many jobs.

"Each of those groups needs a different response," he said.

But what response?

Matthews's has been to begin looking outside Milwaukee for work. He is not sure that the jobs programs being hatched in Washington will do anything to bring down the unemployment rate for minorities. But his wife hopes they will, for their family and for Obama, whose success she links to the larger black community.

"I just hope it turns around before he leaves office so it's not, 'Well we gave y'all a chance and look what happened,' " said Daniela Matthews.

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