Employment in Inner City Grand Rapids: Not Just an Issue of Black and White

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

A few people had told me that employment in Grand Rapids’ inner city, particularly among Black males, was shockingly low – much more so than for Whites. Others dismissed the figures as certainly exaggerated. So i decided to investigate, using 1990 Census data.

The data available did not allow me to break down employment according to male and female in most cases, though i was able to do so for young adults. But here is what i was able to come up with:

In the entire city, the White employment rate for ages 16 to 65 is 95%; the Black rate is 81 %. Put another way, official Black unemployment in Grand Rapids is almost four times higher than official White unemployment.

In the central city – which. defined as all those neighborhoods any part of which is within one mile of the Downtown or Heartside neighborhoods – official White unemployment, at 8%, is less than a third the rate.of official Black unemployment, which stands at 26%.”‘

Those official figures do not take into account those not in the labor force, whether because they are unpaid “homemakers”, or have given up looking for paid work, or for other reasons. Taking that into account, the citywide White employment rate is 78% while the Black rate is 57%. In the central city those respective rates are 74% and 44%. In other words, in the central city slightly over I in 44 White people of employable age are not employed, while that figure for Black people is more than 1 in 2.

Among 16- to 19-year-olds who are not in school, 39% of Whites are either unemployed or not in the labor force. For Blacks the figure is 72%. In the central city those figures are 47% for Whites and 76% for Blacks. To put those last figures another way, slightly over half of young White people in the central city who are not in school have a job; the comparable figure for young Black people is slightly less than one out of four.

Due to lack of further information, these figures should be treated with some caution. In particular, there is no way to know how many of those considered “not in the labor force” are being monetarily supported by other family members.

In addition, it does not make sense to compare apples to oranges; the data are only meaningful when similar categories are compared to each other. For instance, comparing the extremes of the rate of official unemployment among White adults throughout the city (or the county) to the rate of those “not in the labor force” who are Black, young adults, and not in school, Is not very meaningful- there are too many variables to enable one to draw meaningful conclusions from such comparisons.

Nevertheless, the discrepancies that these figures make clear are striking enough to be of very serious concern. And according to recent data developed by GRETS, population is up in Grand Rapids while employment is down. Thus, the situation is probably worse now than it was in 1990g.