Report | Jobs and Unemployment

High black unemployment widespread across nation’s metropolitan areas

Issue Brief #315

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Even before the recession, many Midwestern African American communities were in economic distress, with high African American unemployment rates common in Rust Belt metropolitan areas such as greater Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. In contrast, blacks were doing relatively well in Sun Belt metropolitan areas such as Tampa, Miami, and Las Vegas. Unfortunately, these metros are now showing some of the highest unemployment rates and largest percentage-point increases in unemployment. As a result, black unemployment rates in 2010 were high in Rust Belt and Sun Belt areas alike. Milwaukee stands out for being among the worst off for African Americans on all of the unemployment measures examined in this issue brief, including having the largest black-to-white unemployment rate disparity in 2010.

See also: Hispanic unemployment highest in Northeast metropolitan areas
Elsewhere on the web: Huffington Post slideshow of 10 cities where black unemployment rose the fastest

Without a strong federal jobs program, the pain of very high unemployment is likely to be long lasting for most of America’s metropolitan blacks. This issue brief finds:

  • In 2007, before the recession, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Louis metropolitan areas all had black unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher.
  • In 2010, Detroit, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis all had black unemployment rates of 20 percent or higher, comparable to the peak national unemployment rates during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • In 2007, the Sun Belt metropolitan areas of Charlotte, Miami, Tampa, and Las Vegas all had black unemployment rates below the national rate for blacks. By 2010, these Sun Belt metropolitan areas had unemployment rates that were above the national black rate and were among the highest rates of all the metropolitan areas examined.
  • In Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, La., blacks were more than three times as likely to be unemployed as whites in 2010. Milwaukee had the biggest disparity with a black-to-white unemployment rate ratio of 3.8-to-1.

(A companion Issue Brief #314 on Hispanic unemployment in metropolitan areas is available through EPI’s website.)

Unemployment rates and increases​

Even before the recession, which began in December of 2007, African Americans in many metropolitan areas were experiencing very high unemployment rates. (This analysis is limited to the 31 metropolitan areas for which the data were sufficient for reliable unemployment estimates.) Distress before the downturn was concentrated in Midwestern metropolitan areas. The Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Louis metropolitan areas all had average black unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher in 2007 (Table 1). Detroit and Cleveland—with black unemployment rates of 14.9 percent—tied for the highest position. At one time, these Midwestern metropolitan areas beckoned blacks from the South with their strong growth in manufacturing jobs. In recent times, however, growing numbers of blacks have been moving away from these areas in search of better opportunities (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 2011).

In 2010, three Midwestern metropolitan areas remained among those with the very highest unemployment rates; Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis were the first, second, and fourth highest in black unemployment rates, respectively (Table 2). Las Vegas ranked third. All of these areas had black unemployment rates of over 20 percent, comparable to the peak national unemployment rates during the Great Depression of the 1930s (Carter 2006).

In 2007, the Sun Belt metropolitan areas of Charlotte, Miami, Tampa, and Las Vegas all had black unemployment rates below the national rate for blacks (Table 1). Black unemployment rates in Miami (6.5 percent), Tampa (5.2 percent), and Las Vegas (6.2 percent) were significantly below the national black rate (8.3 percent) and among the lowest of the 31 metropolitan areas examined. By 2010, these four Sun Belt metros had unemployment rates ranging from 16.1 percent to 21.4 percent—above the national black rate of 15.9 percent and among the highest rates of the 31 metropolitan areas.

The five metropolitan areas with the largest black populations are New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia (Frey 2011). Of these areas, Chicago had the highest black unemployment rate in 2010, 17 percent, and it ranked eighth of the areas analyzed. Atlanta ranked 13th, with a black unemployment rate of 15.7 percent. Philadelphia and New York ranked 18th and 19th, with rates of 14.6 percent and 14.4 percent, respectively. Washington D.C., ranked 29th, third from the bottom, with a rate of 9.6 percent.

Los Angeles, Charlotte, and Detroit all had black unemployment rate increases of more than 4 percentage points from 2009 to 2010. In total, 16 metropolitan areas had unemployment rate increases of at least 1 percentage point.

The black-to-white unemployment ratio

A high black unemployment rate could reflect generally high unemployment in a metropolitan area that affects all racial groups, or it could be because of a high racial disparity in unemployment rates that negatively affects blacks (or it could, of course, be due to some combination of both factors). Generally, racial disparity plays a role. In 2009 and 2010, the national black-to-white unemployment rate ratio was basically 2-to-1, meaning that blacks were about twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.  (See the appendix for metro unemployment rates for blacks, whites, and the entire metropolitan population in 2009 and 2010.)

Three metropolitan areas stand out with particularly large black-to-white unemployment rate disparities. In Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge in 2010, the black-to-white unemployment rate ratio exceeded 3-to-1 (Table 3). It was highest in Milwaukee, where blacks were 3.8 times as likely to be unemployed as whites. In Minneapolis, blacks were 3.6 times as likely as whites to be unemployed. In Baton Rouge, blacks were 3.4 times as likely to be unemployed.

The metropolitan areas with the five largest black populations were about average in their black-to-white unemployment rate disparity. In 2010, Atlanta had the largest disparity with a ratio of 2.2-to-1. Chicago had a ratio of 2.1-to-1. New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. all had ratios of 2.0-to-1.

Hard times in black Milwaukee

In the various ways this issue brief examines high black unemployment rates, one metropolitan area presents itself again and again: Milwaukee. In 2007, before the full effect of the recession, Milwaukee already had a black unemployment rate exceeding 10 percent, the fourth highest of the areas examined. Although not shown in the tables, it ranked third highest in the percentage-point increase from 2007 to 2010. In 2009 and 2010, Milwaukee ranked, respectively, first and second highest among metros in the black unemployment rate. In 2009 and 2010, Milwaukee also had the highest black-to-white unemployment rate ratio.

If this issue brief tried to identify the most socially and economically marginalized black metropolitan population, the unemployment situation of black Milwaukee suggests that it would be a candidate. Additionally, the Brookings Institution has reported that Milwaukee has the highest degree of black-white segregation of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas (Frey 2011). As the Supreme Court wisely observed in Brown v. Board of Education, it is impossible to guarantee equal opportunity under conditions of racial segregation.


Austin, Algernon. 2010. Uneven pain: Unemployment by metropolitan area and race. Economic Policy Institute, Issue Brief #278. Washington, D.C.: EPI.

Carter, Susan B., et al. 2006. “Table Ba470-477 Labor force, employment, and unemployment: 1890-1990,” in Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, millennial ed., ed. Susan B. Carter, et al., vol. 2, pp. 82-83.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frey, William H. 2011. The New Metro Minority Map: Regional Shifts in Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks from Census 2010. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Accessed 2011. In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience. New York: The New York Public Library.