About 44 percent of working-age black men in New Orleans were unemployed last year, according to a City Hall analysis of census data. It's a figure that might seem unworthy of celebrating but one that has fallen by several percentage points since hitting a startling peak in 2011.
While broader economic trends certainly have played a role in the improvement, the data have given Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration fodder to argue that recent city initiatives aimed at providing more job opportunities have started to pay off.
At a meeting of the City Council's Economic Development and Special Development Projects Committee last week, Landrieu economic adviser Ashleigh Gardere said, "It is really about showing that if we all work together, we really can make a difference in what’s happening in the economy."
Gardere gave council members an update on Landrieu's so-called Economic Opportunity Strategy, pointing out progress in the city’s efforts to hire more minority and local workers on city contracts, among other initiatives.
The new "non-employment" rate, as Gardere dubbed it, of 44 percent is based on 2015 census data released last month. It is a separate figure from the official unemployment rate released by the federal government, which is based on a household survey and counts only those who have been looking for work recently.
The city's figures include all working-age individuals, including those in jail, who do not have a job, regardless of whether they have been seeking one.
In 2013, Loyola University researchers published a report using similar data that showed 52 percent of the city's working-age black men had been unemployed in 2011 — a statistic that's been held up as a rallying cry ever since by those calling for efforts to get more black men on the job rolls.
The mayor and council have created a variety of programs in recent years aimed at reversing trends that have put the city’s black population — and black men in particular — at an economic disadvantage.
Hoping to reverse long-standing trends that have left New Orleans’ black population — partic…
By 2015, the year the census data cover, the city had launched its Strive NOLA program, a four-week course that provides so-called "soft skills" training for people struggling to find work, and its Build NOLA program, which aims to help local, small and disadvantaged businesses effectively compete for public and private contracts.
The six-month job retention rate for people connected to jobs through Strive NOLA and four other “opportunity centers” is 78 percent, Gardere said.
As many as 120 people have gone through the city’s Build NOLA program, she said, and those graduates have been awarded $1.8 million in contracts. All new contracts were awarded to black-owned firms, she said.
Other programs under the overall initiative, such as the city’s local hiring law, didn’t take effect until this year.
That program requires businesses to make a “good faith effort” to funnel 30 percent of all work hours on applicable city contracts to New Orleans residents and 10 percent of such hours to “disadvantaged local workers,” who are defined as local residents with incomes equal to or less than half of the New Orleans-area median income, plus those who face other employment obstacles.
Those goals — which were fiercely debated by contractors and labor activists — will increase by 5 percent each year until 2020, with the ultimate goal of sending at least half of the work hours to locals and 30 percent to disadvantaged locals.
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Nine city contracts have been awarded through that program so far, Gardere said. About a quarter of all the work hours thus far were completed by local residents, though Gardere said she expects the city to reach its 30 percent goal by year’s end.
Contractors overall made 22 new hires, a number Gardere said proves businesses did not have to lay off dozens of their current people in order to hire locally. Some contractors had claimed Landrieu’s new rules would lead to that result.
Council members lauded the unemployment rate news. “That’s amazing. Congratulations for moving that quite substantially,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said.
Head also asked how city officials are working to tell more people about available jobs, citing neighborhoods where clusters of people appear not to be working. Gardere said publicizing the improved employment rate is the first step “because it absolutely changes the narrative.”
There was a downside in the largely upbeat news. Gardere said that while unemployment is down, so are wage earnings for black men, though she didn’t elaborate.
Census data show that black men working full time in New Orleans in 2011 made an estimated $31,018 annually. Without accounting for margins of error, that figure jumped to $36,706 by 2013 but was back down to $32,762 last year.
Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey said the wage decrease confirms the importance of the city’s work, adding that continued efforts should in time notch up wages again.