Every few months you hear about a new ranking showing that Pittsburgh is doing better than other regions. Last fall, we were rated the "best U.S. city for relocation." In January, Pittsburgh was designated one of the "happiest cities" in which to work. In April, it was reported that there were more U-Hauls coming here than leaving in 2012.
There are some rankings you never hear about, however, because they aren't statistics we can be proud of. They show that tens of thousands of our region's minority residents not only aren't sharing in the region's overall economic progress, they're worse off than in almost any other major region in the country.
For example, throughout the course of the recent recession and recovery, Pittsburgh has celebrated the fact that its unemployment rate was below the national average. However, census estimates for 2011 indicate that the unemployment rate for African-Americans in southwestern Pennsylvania was above the national average for African-Americans.
In fact, the Pittsburgh region had the 11th highest unemployment rate among African-Americans in the top 40 regions.
The census estimated that the unemployment rate among African-Americans in our region in 2011 was 19 percent, meaning nearly 1 out of every 5 African-Americans who wanted to work was unable to find a job. Our black unemployment rate was 2.6 times the unemployment rate among whites, the seventh-worst disparity among the top 40 regions in the country.
Our unusually high unemployment among African-Americans is not a new phenomenon, and it's not due to the recent recession. Throughout the last decade, African-Americans in Pittsburgh have had one of the highest unemployment rates among major metropolitan regions in the country.
The disparity isn't just in unemployment.
The African-Americans in our region who do have jobs are earning significantly less than white workers here and less than African-Americans make in other regions of the country. In 2011, the average African-American man with a full-time job earned $39,132 in the Pittsburgh region. That's the second-lowest average wage for African-Americans among the top 40 regions (only Cleveland has lower earnings for blacks than Pittsburgh), and it's more than 40 percent lower than the $65,850 the average white man with a full-time job makes in the Pittsburgh region. African-American women with full-time jobs earned slightly less than men -- an average of $37,138 -- but their earnings rank slightly better (only seventh lowest) compared to African-American women in other parts of the country.
One reason for the disparity in earnings compared to other regions is the types of jobs African-Americans who live here have. Only 23 percent of African-Americans in Pittsburgh work in management, business, science and arts occupations, the second-lowest percentage among the top 40 regions, whereas 34 percent work in service occupations, the highest percentage among major regions.
The combination of persistently high unemployment rates among African-Americans and lower wage levels among those who are employed have resulted in an even more shameful statistic -- Pittsburgh had the third-highest rate of poverty for working-age (18-64) African-Americans among the major metropolitan regions in the country in 2011, and the sixth-highest rate of poverty for African-American children. Nearly a third (31 percent) of 18-64 year old African-Americans are living in poverty, nearly half (45 percent) of African-American children under 18 are poor, and more than half (53 percent) of African-American children under age 5 live in households with income below the poverty line.
It's not surprising that if minorities in the region have trouble finding work and fall into poverty, we would have trouble attracting and retaining minorities in the region.
In fact, Pittsburgh has the least diverse population of any major metropolitan region in the country. The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that only 12 percent of the residents of the Pittsburgh region are nonwhite, the smallest percentage among the top 40 regions in the country. The average among the largest regions is 32 percent, and in the U.S. as a whole, 24 percent of the population is nonwhite, twice as high a proportion as in Pittsburgh.
If you looked to see who was behind the wheel of those U-Hauls that came here last year, you probably wouldn't see many nonwhite families.
In a quirk of statistics, our lack of diversity makes our region look like it's doing better in terms of unemployment than it really is. For example, in 2011, the overall unemployment rate in Pittsburgh was lower than the unemployment rate for Baltimore. But the census data show that the unemployment rates for both whites and blacks were higher in Pittsburgh than in Baltimore. How can that be? Because 38 percent of the population in the Baltimore region is nonwhite, but only 12 percent of the population in southwestern Pennsylvania is nonwhite, Baltimore's total regional unemployment rate is higher than Pittsburgh's simply because Baltimore has a bigger nonwhite population.
What can be done to improve the economic status of African-Americans in the region?
• Improve the region's business climate. It's hard to help African-Americans get good jobs if there aren't good jobs available in the region. As noted in last month's column ("Regional Insights: Pittsburgh region's job growth ranks last in U.S.," April 7), our region has had one of the slowest rates of job growth in the nation in recent months. In order to create more jobs, we need to lower state business taxes, create more industrial sites, fix our decaying roads, bridges and water and sewer systems, and provide the capital that entrepreneurs need to start and expand businesses.
• Improve the quality of public education. If we are successful in creating more jobs, we need to make sure that our African-American residents have the skills they'll need to be hired for them, and that means improving our education system. State tests show that fewer than half (43 percent) of the African-American 11th-graders in the region can read properly and fewer than one-third (29 percent) are proficient in math. Only 15 percent of African-Americans in the Pittsburgh region over age 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher, the third-lowest percentage of any major region in the country.
• Support adequate, affordable public transit to job centers. Census data show that 25 percent of the African-American workers in our region rely on public transportation to get to work, the second-highest proportion of any major region in the country (only New York is higher), and six times higher than the proportion of white workers in our region who use public transit (4 percent). Cutbacks in transit service will have disproportionately negative impacts on the ability of African-Americans to obtain and retain jobs.
While it's good to celebrate our region's successes, it's time we started making more serious efforts to correct our weaknesses. We need to accelerate our economic and workforce development efforts, but we need to do it in a way that will benefit all of our region's citizens.
Harold D. Miller is president of Future Strategies LLC and adjunct professor of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University. He publishes www.PittsburghFuture.blogspot.com, an Internet resource on regional economic and civic issues.