Though the nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, we remain a long way from reaching the goals he strove to achieve. From the 1960s to today, the black unemployment rate has been about 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate, and it is likely that nearly one in five black workers was unemployed at some point in 2013.
Each month, the official unemployment rate provides the share of the labor force unemployed in that month. But this understates the number of people who are unemployed at some point over a longer period, since someone who is employed in one month may become unemployed the next, and vice versa. Therefore, the official annual unemployment rate—which is actually the average monthly unemployment rate for the year—is much lower than the share of the workforce that experienced unemployment at some point during the year. The average monthly unemployment rate in 2013 was 7.4 percent, but we estimate that 12.7 percent of the workforce, or more than one out of every eight workers, was unemployed at some point in 2013.
For African American workers, the employment situation is significantly worse. The 2013 unemployment rate for blacks was 13.1 percent, far higher than the highest overall annual unemployment rate over the last 70 years. An estimated 19.6 percent of black workers (nearly one in five) were unemployed at some point in 2013. Furthermore, given unemployment projections for 2014, it is likely that 17.4 percent of black workers will be unemployed at some point this year. The labor market is improving extremely slowly for all major groups, but the employment situation of African Americans remains at something more akin to depression-level conditions.