Unemployment numbers this week hit a low of almost four years.
Tess Vigeland: So that payroll tax will likely be a defining issue this year in Congress. Another one? Jobs. More specifically, job creation. The latest report out of the Labor Department showed companies added 200,000 jobs in December. The unemployment rate has ticked down to 8.5 percent. But that is an average, and there are still communities where the rate is much, much higher.
Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports.
Mitchell Hartman: African-American unemployment tops 15 percent -- more than double the rate for whites. So, on this Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, what would the civil rights leader make of the economic state of black America? I asked Margaret Simms of the Urban Institute.
Margaret Simms: I think in some ways he would find himself where he was around the time he was assassinated, when he was organizing a poor people's campaign.
Simms says the African-American middle class has grown significantly since 1968.
Simms: But if we look at the conditions within African-American communities, we find that many people have been left behind.
Simms says the recession hit minorities particularly hard. Many work in low-skilled fields where layoffs were severe -- that's construction and manufacturing for black men, retail for black women.
And now, they're having a tougher time than whites getting back to work.
Simms: It's the old cliché -- last hired, first fired. Only in this case as we come into the recovery, it's first fired, last hired.
And, in a disturbing trend, African-American unemployment actually started rising again late last year.
Rutgers economist William Rodgers says that's partly because cash-strapped state and local governments are slashing jobs -- teachers, case workers, administrators.
William Rodgers: Since African Americans, particularly African-American women, are heavily concentrated in the public sector, they're facing -- and their communities are facing -- a double-whammy.
Rodgers says not only are middle-class government jobs with pensions and health benefits evaporating, government support services that many depend on are being cut. And communities of color are fighting back -- through labor unions, civil rights groups, and under the Occupy Wall Street umbrella.
I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.