For most of his adult life, De’Angelo Mack worked odd jobs. At a mattress warehouse, a candy factory, Fedex. Most work lasted a couple of weeks or months. But when the Chicago-born 32-year-old started looking for more permanent employment after the pandemic, it was hard to come by.

“I started trying to change my life but I thought it was too late,” Mack said. “Because the jobs I was looking for – I wanted – they were rejecting me.”

After two years, Mack was able to find stable employment at a cafe through the North Lawndale Employment Network, a workforce development agency that connects Black Chicagoans with jobs. Mack said that it was the first time that he felt valued in a workplace, and he is now working on certifications that could open up more opportunities. 

As Mack’s story is becoming more and more common in Chicago, it is becoming less common in other parts of the country.

Nationally, Black unemployment has fallen to a historic low of 4.7%. The gap between the Black and White unemployment rates is narrower than ever before. But this trend masks an enormous geographic divergence. In some cities across the country, most prominently New York and Chicago, Black people are struggling to find permanent employment. Elsewhere, like in cities like Miami and Atlanta, Black workers are making tremendous gains. 

“Certain parts of the country have been scarred more by the recessions than others. Certain industries have a harder time than others, and there are geographically different concentrations,” said Claudia Sahm, who has served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. “What you’re seeing is the recovery is of different strength and of different length in these different parts of the country.”

In Chicago, Black unemployment is more than twice national levels at 10.8%, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. In New York City, that number has soared to 12.2% – more than double pre-pandemic rates, and over nine times higher than the current white unemployment rate citywide, as measured by James Parrot at the New School.

In both of these cities, lags in returns for face-to-face industries and longstanding barriers to employment are cited as explanations for regional divides, as well as relatively stagnant wage growth that has led to a steady outward migration of well-established Black communities. These trends are in stark contrast to the booming economies of Southern cities, where Black people have absorbed the majority of low income wage gains over the past two years.

Applying for Jobs That Aren’t There

When his family returned to Brooklyn from Long Island, Cayson Bryant, 21, started looking for a retail or restaurant job that would leverage his two years of experience as a deli clerk for BJ’s. He applied to everything from Bed Bath and Beyond to local restaurants, but for months, Bryant couldn’t find anything. 

“I was getting so frustrated because straight out of high school, I was used to working 40 hours a week,” Bryant said. “So that period was hard, I needed to find something to do with my time, it was just so much and I needed to work for income. So it was like a flurry of emotions.”

Bryant strengthened his application with community service jobs and resume services. Eight months later, after completing a technical training program through the Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he found work as a part-time building automation technician. But he still wants full-time work.

Bryant’s story is emblematic of people across the city, looking to return to industries that aren’t there anymore. 

Ravaged by COVID deaths, New York City and Chicago had long shut downs that cost hundreds of thousands of jobs in face-to-face service industries. Local politicians in Florida and Georgia adamantly rejected calls to shut down cities statewide – keeping hotels, restaurants and bars open.

Two years later, these industries are predictably recovering much faster in places that never shut down in the first place, a trend that is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic workers who disproportionately occupied these positions prior to the pandemic.

According to a study by the New York Federal Reserve, the retail trade is still down 11%, with leisure and hospitality trailing 8% over the same time period. White-collar jobs, like business, information and finance, have all seen gains of 2%. 

The opposite is true in cities down south. 

The bulk of the job recovery in Miami and West Palm – an area that constitutes 30% of the statewide workforce – was driven by low wage jobs in the trade, leisure and hospitality, and transportation industries. 

“In our industry, there’s always certain positions that are always in demand that continue to be in demand,” said Lynne Hernandez, the South Florida Regional Director at Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “And certainly we’ve had a tremendous surge of new operators, domestically, internationally. We’ve just grown exponentially.”

But industry changes can’t fully account for these changes. The unemployment rate for Hispanic workers – who also disproportionately occupied the service positions that are lagging in some cities – has fully recovered, even in cities where Black unemployment has not. 

Higher Risk, Lower Reward

The difference might be accounted for in wages.

For over a year, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates in the effort to tamp down on wage growth, as part of the ongoing fight against inflation. In spite of a tightening labor market, annual wage growth has held steady at 4.5% through this April of this year, and nationwide, low wage workers continue to absorb much of that acceleration.

Much like unemployment trends, these wage increases have also been geographically lopsided.

Wage growth in Florida was 10.8% between 2021 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Illinois and New York, wage growth was 7.8% and 5.6% respectively for the same time period. 

Wages increased the most for Black men in Florida, who experienced a 29% or $4.90 per hour increase between 2020 and 2022, not adjusted for inflation. Black people in New York City only experienced a 17% wage increase over the same period. 

“Hot labor markets tend to lead to higher employment and higher wages for marginalized workers,” said Ali Bustamente, Deputy Director of the Worker Power and Economic Security program at the New York-based Roosevelt Institute.

The organizers at Equity and Transformation organization in Chicago work to bridge the gap between informal work and recognized work in the city’s Black communities. Twenty-nine percent of the people surveyed relied on informal work to supplement a regular paycheck – highlighting the need to supplement low-wage work. 

“One of the things that is constantly touted is these job programs – and it is great to have job programs. My question is, where do individuals go after they went through the job program?” said Alonzo Waheed, Director of Organizing at EAT. “Because are there enough jobs? It’s not like individuals don’t want to work.”

Reversing the Great Migration

Across the country, Black people experience barriers to employment ranging from digital access to the criminal justice system. Some economists have warned that national progress in the labor market could be undone by a looming recession, which has historically affected Black workers first. 

In Chicago and New York, those obstacles have led to the highest rates of outward Black migration in the country  – with 10% loss in Chicago and nine in New York. The reason is largely economic: unattractive wages and workplace discrimination have driven Black populations in NYC and Chicago out in droves. 

In New York, only 15% of rentals are affordable for Black New Yorkers, compared to 20% before the pandemic, according to a study done by Streeteasy

But it is not the lowest income workers that are leaving, according to Dr. Zulema Blair, chair of the public administration department at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn who studies the city’s changing Black population. Instead, it is middle class families who don’t qualify for the social safety net, but still struggle to make ends meet.  

“You have an apartment, you have rent, or you have a mortgage, you have transportation costs. You have a lot of different bills, so the dollar just is not stretching,” said Blair. “And for low income individuals, I wouldn’t say they’re better off, but I would say that they’re opportunities for them.”