Economic Vitality Requires More Than Low Unemployment Rates For Blacks

By Barney Blakeney

The metropolitan Charleston area is experiencing a robust economy. For residents of Charleston County, that translates into the lowest unemployment rate – 2.3 percent in May – since 1998. But what does that mean for African American residents? I asked Trident Urban League Executive Director Otha Meadows his thoughts.

According to Charleston County Economic Development Department, there are some 375,000 workers in the Charleston region comprised of some 775,000 people. About 30 percent of residents are African American and 90 percent of residents have high school diplomas. About 64 percent of the population range in age from 18-64 years old. Most workers are employed by establishments with four or less employees though the largest industrial employers respectively are healthcare and social assistance, accommodations and food and retail trade. The median income in the region is about $54,000 annually. In 2017, the overall unemployment rate was about 3.5 percent.

“Charleston is on fire,” Meadows says of the economic landscape, but its cool spot is the Black community. Despite the region’s lowest unemployment rate in two decades, the unemployment rate among African Americans still is twice that in the overall population. And while construction cranes dot the Charleston skyline, absent in that growth and development is the African American presence, he said. Economic change in the region is phenomenal as apartment complexes and hotels are being constructed on virtually every available piece of property.

“We’re not at the table,” Meadows says. “We’ve got to shoulder some responsibility for that because we don’t attend planning and zoning meetings where the information about development is discussed and decided. As a consequence, assets acquired over generations are undervalued and sold at nominal prices.”

He thinks one avenue to increase the flow of money into Black business development and growth may be a bi-partisan bill introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Essentially, Scott’s proposed Investing in Opportunity Act would provide tax incentives to investors. For small businesses like C.O. Federal Credit Union which serve the Black community, that could mean more money to lend entrepreneurs starting businesses, Meadows said.

The growth and development experienced in the region hasn’t meant that more economic doors in the Black community have been opened, but it does signal opportunities in areas such as Internet Technology, automotive and aeronautics. He underscored that premise saying, “Our people are working, but are they working in jobs where they earn livable wages?”

He noted the local public education system’s failures coupled with racism and discrimination still results in Black college graduates earning only about two-thirds the salary of their white counterparts, and that the median income of Blacks and Black homeownership still lags behind that of whites. “We’re not being represented in the growth and development of the region.”

To accurately assess the economic condition of the Black community, Meadows says, “You have to look at the total picture not just the employment rate.”

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