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The New Economic Apartheid

The numbers none of our leaders talk about

It’s Father’s Day, so let’s talk about men—specifically, about jobs for men. There’s no other word for it but crisis. Men over the age of 16 here are in trouble because work has disappeared. Yet none of our elected officials, and only a few of our appointed ones, act as if 45 percent of the black men in Buffalo being out of the workforce is an issue at all.

Once more: 45 percent of the black males older than 16. Officially, unemployment here is 14.1 percent inside the boundaries of the City of Buffalo. White men aren’t exactly thriving here, either, with the Census data from 2011 reporting that only 64 percent of them are in the workforce—which means that more than one-third aren’t. Add in the unemployed, and what you get is this picture: White men inside Buffalo are only marginally better off than black men.

Unemployment among white males is officially 9.9 percent, and officially for black males 22 percent. But the more honest way to parse the numbers is the way that Marc Levine in Milwaukee has been doing it: add up the unemployed, but also add in the guys who aren’t in the workforce—the guys in the street, the guys in prison, and the ones who somehow live despite having been utterly marginalized in the largest national economy on the planet. The real number for black men in Buffalo, the number that shapes the community, is not 22 percent unemployment, which is only double the official white-male rate of unemployment. It’s double that white-male number twice, and then some.

The unemployment rate during the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 spiked at about 25 percent. Here in Buffalo, for white men, it’s much worse. For black men, it’s much, much worse.

Professor Levine says that Milwaukee’s black men have it even worse than Buffalo’s black men, which is a horrifying idea, so to the numbers we go. Levine says we should take 1970 as our baseline. Back in 1970, there were still big paychecks to be had working steel in Lackawanna, working at the Chevy plant on East Delevan and at the Houdaille radiator plant just north of Kensington, and at Ford in Blasdell, and cutting meat at all the packing houses on William Street. The Census data say that in 1970, 79 percent of the black men in Buffalo were in the workforce. Now, as of the 2010 Community Survey, 54.7 percent of black men in Buffalo are in the workforce. Yes, Milwaukee’s black men fell a bit harder from a bit higher: 84 percent of them were in the workforce in 1970, and only 52.7 percent are in it today.

Milwaukee, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit…same picture, same numbers.

Cock an ear. Mayor Byron Brown has a plan for this, right? Bernie Tolbert, his challenger, is laying it all out—his plan to address the fact that of the 32,598 black men over 16 years of age in Buffalo today, only 18,361 are actually in the workforce (including the 4,800 of that 18,000 who are unemployed). When you add the unemployed to the out-of-the-workforce numbers, you’re looking at a number north of 19,000 out of the 32,598 black men here. Almost six out of 10 black men in Buffalo are either unemployed or out of the work paradigm altogether.

In a city that continues to lose population, in a region that continues to lose jobs—with employment in Niagara and Erie Counties that has shrunk from 550,000 in January 2000 to less than 520,000 in January 2013—neither of the men running for Buffalo’s highest office has said a syllable about the disappearance of work that has hit this town, and this region, so hard.

The rest is silence

There is a plan to address this crisis, right? Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Billion for Buffalo includes a long and growing roster of initiatives. The Regional Economic Development Council for Western New York produced a report a few months ago that contains many cogent-sounding items: “closing the skills gap,” identifying “growth sectors” in “smart manufacturing” and “health services” all in the context of “smart growth,” so that new job opportunities for the most aggrieved and excluded will happen within or at least close to the borders of Buffalo.

Nowhere in the Regional Economic Development Council document does it say “recognizing the social, economic, psychological, and moral costs borne by our fellow citizens, we’re focusing our efforts on the 19,000 black males who are either out of a job or out of the workforce entirely.”

Back in 1970, when almost eight out of 10 black men were in the workforce, almost 200,000 men and women worked in manufacturing. Today, when fewer than five of 10 black men are either in the workforce or employed, manufacturing counts for fewer than 50,000 jobs here.

There are structural barriers that hold black men down in this regional economy—specifically, the spatial isolation of the poor far from where the jobs are, the lack of quick or even just time-efficient public transportation to physically get people from inside Buffalo to the jobsite outside Buffalo, and the biggest impediment of all, education. Buffalo’s school graduation rate is low. Some individual high school graduation rates are under 20 percent. By one local investigator’s calculation, there is a statistically undeniable correlation between high school graduation and poverty, low rent, and likelihood of being either in, about to go in, or just out, of the Erie County Holding Center. Black men are 50 percent of inmates in local jails; high school dropouts are eight times more likely to go to jail; black men are twice as likely as white men to be high school dropouts.

This is not that hard to figure out, even when race is removed as one of the variables in the analysis: sociologists, economists, historians, lawyers, and school administrators have known for decades that the real determinant of all this stuff is household income. Poor people both get hurt more and cause more hurt when they’re kept isolated from opportunity.

Breaking up this structure will take money, of course. But now that we have the Buffalo Billion on its way, the problem should be solved—right?

Follow today’s money

Buckets of money are being brought into Buffalo from Albany, and from Washington, but mainly from Albany, the New York State capitol. And soon, if Governor Cuomo’s initiative to eliminate all state taxes on any business startup that happens next to a SUNY campus, there will be jobs, too.

If it succeeds as planned, the Buffalo Billion will incrementally increase employment in manufacturing; incrementally shift healthcare employment, across the spectrum of disciplines, more toward Buffalo; incrementally better the matchup between skills and available jobs; and, it’s hoped by a big increment, get more entrepreneurial activity going around here. A whole lot of very capable people are investing good work in this process.

And every day, they’re being undermined and their efforts thwarted by the political system that rewards insider-dealing, dilutes the power of public investment, and keeps in place the physical and spatial barriers that hem the worst-off, most-jailed, most-isolated people in the region exactly as they have been.

Even the hoped-for investment in the new STEM economy—which is how Washington think-tanks refer to jobs and enterprises tied to science, technology, and mathematics—is bypassing the places of greatest distress.

Why? Corruption, of course. As reported here first in March 2011 by Artvoice editor Geoff Kelly, two months before the Buffalo News reported it, a payback scheme to a wired Conservative Party operative—and his wired architectural/engineering firm—will put the new $30 million workforce-training center 12.4 miles, and a one-hour bus ride (but only until 8:20pm), from the Fruit Belt. New York State’s money, plus Erie County’s money, plus Erie Community College’s evaporating fund balance, will go exactly where both Republican Erie County Executive Christopher Collins and his successor Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz agree it should go: namely, far from the crisis, but very close to where a very wired real-estate developer owns valuable property.

So far, the governor’s allies are not yet winning in their effort to change the dynamic, or the structure, or the trends. The happy Father’s Days of the old era, when even black men had decent-paying jobs, won’t be back until they do.

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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