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Despite struggles, education is still the pathway to freedom

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2009

In recognition of Black History Month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has presented a flattering economic sketch of black people in the United States. In this drawing by the numbers, we are seen as a relatively young and hearty workforce - 17 million black people strong - poised to weather the difficult economic times ahead.

Nearly two-thirds of us are 45 and younger, according to the bureau. And more than one in four are employed in education and health service fields - where some of the fastest growing occupations are expected to be found through 2016.

The portrait, based on 2008 data, is relentlessly upbeat, without even a hint that 2.2 million black people were unemployed last year. It is as though they had been airbrushed from the picture altogether.

Yet, if you really want to cut black unemployment, who better to look at than those of us who have jobs? What you'll see is a strong correlation between work and education. Hard to tell that when the numbers crunchers start whittling away at school programs in a recession.

Of the 6.8 million black men who are employed, the vast majority have at least a high school diploma. Many have college degrees or diplomas from technical schools. The same is true for the 8.4 million working black women.

For black men ages 20 to 24 without a high school diploma, on the other hand, the unemployment rate is 55 percent - an abysmal 91 percent for 18 and 19 year olds. For uneducated black women 20 to 24, it's close to 30 percent.

Now, give them each a professional degree - and the unemployment rate all but disappears

"The higher the learning, the lower the unemployment," Emy Sok, a bureau economist, told me.

It's a message that has echoed throughout black America for generations. The celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass was only 8 when he discovered what the fuss over education was all about.

In his autobiography, Douglass writes about the moment he realized why a slave could be killed for learning to read: Education was the pathway to freedom.

And so it is today. With more than 40 percent of blacks failing to graduate from some of the nation's largest urban school systems, little wonder that one in nine black men between 20 and 34 are behind bars.

"A problem that we're facing in the District is the expected return of up to 2,500 newly released prisoners each year for several years," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray told me. "By and large, these penal facilities have done a poor job preparing these guys for re-entry into society. So we get this cycle: poorly educated residents going to prison, coming out in worse shape than they went in, causing more trouble and going back to prison."

Nevertheless, progress is being made. In 1970, half of the blacks in the labor force had less than a high school diploma. Today, 54 percent of the black labor force has an education that exceeds the high school level. (To see this profile, go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site, www.bls.gov.)

We are fairly well represented in manufacturing, wholesale, trade, utilities and transportation. For a 25-year-old black man with a bachelor's degree, the median weekly salary is $919. A high school graduate would be lucky to make $500.

We have slightly longer workdays than the national average - about 8.6 hours on the job and other work-related activities vs. the traditional 8. (We also spend 15 minutes more on our workday game face: a full hour of grooming.)

"We've known for some time now that the economy is changing and that not having a good education is an impediment to doing well," said David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "This doesn't mean that if you get a college degree, you will become a millionaire. But you'll certainly have better access to the job market."

It's a lesson that bears repeating as Congress and the new Obama administration wrangle over how best to stimulate the nation's economy.

As the workforce profile of black America makes clear: Stimulate the mind, and the economy will follow.

• Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post's Metro section.



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