The State Of Black (And Hispanic) America

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The State of Black America report shows a dim economic picture for many black Americans. Marc Morial of the the National Urban League explains the changes and challenges facing African Americans and Hispanics, who were included in this year's report for the first time.

NEAL CONAN, host:

The National Urban League released its annual state of black America report yesterday. For the first time, the report also looks at the state of Latinos in the U.S. And some statistics are dire. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is almost twice the white unemployment rate. Dropout rates for Hispanics are the highest in the country. But in other areas there's positive change. Civic engagement for blacks is almost equal to whites, while Latinos nearly equal whites in areas of health.

Today, CEO and president of the National Urban League Marc Morial joins us on the changes and challenges facing African-Americans and Hispanics, and what should the president or Congress do to improve that state? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Marc Morial joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to come in today.

Mr. MARC MORIAL (CEO and President, National Urban League): Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I wonder, the president and Congress just passed the health care bill and enacted it into law. Would you expect better numbers next year?

Mr. MORIAL: We're elated. The improvement in health may take a number of years to really show through in the statistics, but the idea that people are now going to eventually have coverage is a very powerful step in the right direction. So we're elated at the passage of the health reform bill. We worked in favor of it. Weve encouraged, for many, many years, the idea that we ought to afford all Americans health coverage in this nation, and that as a nation that's civilized and a leading nation of the world, the fundamental is that health care is a right and not a privilege.

CONAN: And it's not quite universal, but it's a much greater step towards that than we've seen in...

Mr. MORIAL: It's a powerful step to cover 32 million people. And, of course, there are those who are outside of it, but the expansion of Medicaid, the creation of the exchanges, the idea that small business owners will be incentivized to provide coverage to their employees - we think these are great ideas. And it just reminds me I remember 20 years ago, the first time I ran for public office, we were debating health care, debating various plans to provide coverage to people.

So after, yo these many years, oh these many years, this is a great step, a powerful step. And President Obama snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Speaker Pelosi demonstrated a resolve and I think political ability to meld together a coalition, which was difficult to meld together within the ranks of the...

CONAN: The Democrats...

Mr. MORIAL: ...the Democratic Party, and indeed those were very important and I think admirable and impressive political accomplishments.

CONAN: The economic crisis has affected, well, many, many people of all ethnicities in this country. The does your report suggest to you that African-Americans and Latinos...

Mr. MORIAL: Yes.

CONAN: ...have been disproportionally affected?

Mr. MORIAL: You know what's striking is that this recession has cut across multiple lines. Its affected white collar, blue collar, if you will, pink-collar workers. But the depths of the biggest trough in the economy has affected African-Americans and Latinos. Sixteen percent or thereabout unemployment rate for African-Americans, 12 percent for Latinos, these are rates approaching those of the Great Depression. They're difficult and they're tough.

You know, in our work at the Urban League and through our affiliates in a hundred communities we've listened to stories of people's challenges with this recession and we found people who have worked all their lives, people with skills and degrees finding themselves out of work with no where to turn.

But we've also found people who have historically been unemployed, chronically unemployed, who are facing homelessness, if you will. So this economic situation, people shouldn't pretend that this is just another routine recession. This is the great recession which nearly matches the Great Depression in the way in which it has affected our economy.

CONAN: The president and Congress approved the stimulus package to try to get things moving again. And they argue that it prevented things from becoming a great deal worse and it, indeed, has produced some results. They have their critics, too. Nevertheless, do you think that the answer is to move ahead and try to get the economy overall going ahead? Or, should the president, as some suggest, have a black agenda and target areas that are hardest hit?

Mr. MORIAL: This is what's so, so important. The stimulus was a good step in the right direction. There were those of us who argued then for a larger package. Why wasn't it larger? Because there was a great interest in securing bipartisan support. Those Republicans who did - in fact, three of them - vote for the package, pushed for a smaller package with respect to the stimulus. The stimulus has saved or created over a million jobs. That's good.

The president needs - and let me state this is clearly as possible - an agenda that's inclusive of African-Americans and the needs of African-Americans. I don't favor the president having a series of separate agendas. But then, what does that mean? That means that the economic and jobs plans advanced by the president in the Congress have to pay attention to the difficulties that people in urban communities, the difficulties that African-Americans face, the difficulty that all chronically unemployed American people face.

And that argues for more targeted efforts to help people prepare themselves for construction and transportation construction jobs, training for people so that they can prepare for the green economy. We think, we strongly support direct job creation, redirecting TARP funds to put people to work directly because it's going to take years for the private economy to rebuild itself to absorb the unemployed workers.

CONAN: Given the reaction, youve seen two big spending programs by the president, that includes the stimulus package, that includes the health care bill, do you think it's politically feasible at this point to start more government job creation plans?

Mr. MORIAL: I think if people are educated, that that spending is an investment in jobs. Now, what happens when a person has a job? They become taxpayers. So those taxes that they contribute are going to offset the spending. Number two, they become consumers who can now go into the economy and spend money.

What I think we have to have in this nation about jobs is a debate which is clear about the cost of such a program, but also about the benefits. Here's what really, really bothers us at the National Urban League, to look up and see a $55 billion Baghdad-Iraq reconstruction program, which builds 130 health clinics in Baghdad and then for someone to say, when we want to create jobs in Boston or Baltimore or Binghamton or Cleveland or Columbus or Cincinnati or San Diego or Fresno or Birmingham, that somehow we shouldn't do it because it's spending.

We - there's no better investment that we can make than investing in putting people back to work so that they're part of the rebuilding of this nation. If we don't, we'll continue to pay unemployment benefits, we'll continue to have people on food stamps and we'll find too many Americans who are homeless.

CONAN: Our guest is Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League. And, of course, a man with some considerable electoral experience in his past, too.

Mr. MORIAL: Thank you.

CONAN: And it's a conversation we're going to be continuing not just today but next week. We'll be hearing activist Tavis Smiley on whether America needs a black agenda. As you know, Marc Morial he's been a part of that. So we hope you tune us in for that.

Mr. MORIAL: And, you know, I want to just respond, I mean, because my good friend Tavis Smiley - America - Tavis Smiley has advanced the covenant. We've advanced the compact. There are no - there's no dearth of agenda items that would benefit the black community. There's no dearth of black agenda items. And no doubt, the nation needs an agenda that is inclusive of the needs of all communities. We've got to make sure that we're clear on how that works.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And one thing, before we go to the phones, and that is the question of, look at the state of Latino America, which is new to the Urban League...

Mr. MORIAL: It's new. We've got many, many requests over the year, so we added an Hispanic equality index. It shows wide disparities between whites and Hispanics, too. We're going to do that every year, primarily because people have asked for it.

CONAN: Let's see if we got a caller on the line. This is Bob(ph), Bob with us from San Leandro in California.

BOB (Caller): I just want to state a challenge as a small business owner that depends on flexible workers, the state out here makes it very complicated for flexible workers to hire insurance, et cetera. You should see the paperwork. And sometimes, practically speaking, it's just much easier to hire somebody off one of the, you know, lines where - the job lines where you don't have to pay somebody insurance.

CONAN: Those informal job lines that gather at parking lots?

BOB: Right, unfortunately, that - those type of workers - well, not unfortunately. I mean, they tend to be Latino. I've also hired African-Americans and also whites, but it's much easier to use those lines than a reemployment or job training program, which doesnt have their own insurance, you know, to meet my needs, as well as, you know, the taxes that are involved and stuff like that. It's just very complicated to do it formally. And I just wanted to say that if there were a way to make it easier to use the job retraining programs for young inner-city youth, it would make it a lot easier.

CONAN: Marc Morial?

Mr. MORIAL: It's a, you know, an interesting observation. One thing that Ive noticed in the New York area where our headquarters is located, and that is the use of staffing companies, where businesses will not hire employees but will contract with staffing companies who will provide those employees. And those staffing companies provide the workers' comp, insurance, they pay the taxes. They take care of all the benefits, so that the employer pays one price per hour per employee.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. But a fixed price and he knows what it is.

Mr. MORIAL: A fixed price, he or she knows what it is. And I think that one of the interesting thoughts might be that job training programs or job training initiatives could, in fact, provide the trained employees to businesses through some sort of staffing component. But great thing about these sort of calls is that a caller like that gives us food for thought about how, perhaps, we can think about how to do things better and do things differently. And so I thank the caller for his comment.

CONAN: Thanks...

BOB: I have called and asked specifically for that and gotten not much of a response.

CONAN: Well, maybe the time is right.

Mr. MORIAL: I appreciate his observation.

BOB: Thanks for...

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, Bob. Again, we're talking with Marc Morial, the president/CEO of the National Urban League, about the state of black America, also including a look at the state of Latino America this year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as you look at this situation...

Mr. MORIAL: The economy is beginning to grow.

CONAN: To grow again. But you're looking at a situation in the states - and California is the prime example, but others, Arizona, New Jersey, all across the country, Michigan for sure - that these crises of lack of tax income causing massive layoffs, schools are going to be much more in crisis when this extra money that's going to be run out. The president has said he campaigned on the idea that education was the next Civil Rights Movement and for everybody. Do you believe that they're doing enough to...

Mr. MORIAL: Well, the national...

CONAN: ...move ahead on that?

Mr. MORIAL: I think the national government has extended itself significantly. The president increased education spending through both the stimulus and in his proposed 2011 budget. So I don't think there's been a lack of a commitment. But the reality is, is that the challenges that states, school districts, city governments face are really sort of what we see as the effect, the 2010 after effect of the 2008 and '09 recession.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. MORIAL: And we support an effort by Congressman Miller, a bill by he, the Congressman and others to create direct jobs. These direct jobs - some would be created to help cities keep police on and hire new police, fire - and hire new firefighters, teachers and hire new teachers, and other types of city employees. That kind of jobs bill could give temporary relief to cities and units of local government.

We're at a point where we, I think the economy is beginning to turn, but it's a bit of a jobless turn. So you could have economic growth, but not really strong job creation. The Urban League really - we strongly believe that there are some long-term things to build the economy, but that we've got to have short-term steps, too.

CONAN: Let's get Keith(ph) on the line, Keith calling us from Fort Wayne.

KEITH (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, Keith.

KEITH: Yes. My question is on the jobs. Are there really enough jobs in America to say that we could reduce the unemployment to a number that would be workable with the sentiment of the people? I mean, people are concerned now that there are not enough jobs. And we're in a recession or...

CONAN: And those manufacturing jobs aren't coming back is the fear from a lot of people.

KEITH: Right. They - a lot of them have been farmed out, a lot of corporations. As a matter of fact, I just found out recently that a lot of major corporations are - they're getting incentives to send jobs abroad. And when you look at that as being an encouragement to corporate America, are there really enough jobs here for the people in America?

CONAN: Where do you see the jobs coming, Marc Morial?

Mr. MORIAL: I think that as the economy grows, you're going to have new jobs but there's no immediate - he said, are there enough jobs today? The answer is no. There are six people chasing every open position. So that's why we think the government, like it did in the '30s and like it did in the '70s, should do some direct job creation, to put people to work, while at the same time doing everything within our power to build the economy of the future.

I think the economy of the future will be infrastructure. I think it'll be health sector jobs because I think the health bill will increase demand for nurses, med techs, doctors, pharmacists, those that make medical devices and equipment. I think that the increase in the future will be in the area of education when the economy turns, as people work to retrain themselves. So you've got an economy of the future that is going to build, but it's not around the corner, it's down the block.

CONAN: Hmm. Marc Morial, thanks again for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. MORIAL: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Marc Morial, CEO and president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, with us today here in Studio 3A. As we mentioned, Tuesday we'll hear from broadcaster and activist Tavis Smiley on whether America still needs a black agenda.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with an update on cold fusion - not such rogue science anymore. Join us for that. I'll see you again on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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