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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher November 17, 2010

Marvin Pratt, former acting mayor of Milwaukee, says black male unemployment tops 50 percent

Unemployment in Wisconsin is stubbornly high, but the state overall has not fared as badly as some other states.

The most recent federal figures, from September 2010, put Wisconsin’s unemployment at 7.8 percent -- below the national rate of 9.6 percent and double-digit rates such as Michigan’s 13 percent and Nevada’s 14.4 percent.

But rates can vary widely from place to place and group to group.

In an election-night TV interview, Marvin Pratt, the first African-American to serve as acting mayor of Milwaukee, focused in on black males in the city.

Pratt supported Republican Scott Walker in the 2010 race for Wisconsin governor and was asked at Walker’s victory party why he had not backed Democrat Tom Barrett, who defeated him in the 2004 mayoral election.

"Fifty-two percent black male unemployment," Pratt said in the interview with WISN-TV, adding that other reasons included Milwaukee’s high poverty rate and Walker’s pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term as governor.

Pratt wasn’t the first to make such a claim.

Less than two weeks earlier, Milwaukee radio host Eric Von said on TV at the 4th Street Forum that the rate was "50 percent or better." And the headline on an Oct. 25, 2010, Milwaukee Business Journal article(later reprinted by and read, "Report: 53% of black males unemployed."

The number is startling. At 53 percent, the unemployment rate for black males in the city would be nearly seven times that of the state overall.

Asked about the statement, Pratt told PolitiFact Wisconsin a person he trusts told him shortly before the TV interview that the black male unemployment rate in Milwaukee was 52 percent. He then checked with that person and told us the figure -- actually 53 percent -- came from a report by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee urban studies professor Marc Levine.

Indeed, Von’s statement and the Business Journal article also trace back to the same October 2010 report by Levine, who is a senior fellow at UWM’s Center for Economic Development.

But the official unemployment rate in 2009 for black males in metro Milwaukee, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33.3 percent.

So, what’s going on here?

The difference is what is measured by the federal government’s official unemployment rate and what Levine terms the "jobless rate."

Federal approach

The federal government defines the unemployed as people over age 16 who do not have a job but are available for work and have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks. That is, people out of work and looking for a job.

The unemployment rate is not calculated by using the number of people who file claims for unemployment insurance benefits, but is based on responses to the government’s monthly surveys of some 110,000 people across the country.

In the Milwaukee metropolitan area, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, the overall unemployment rate for 2009 was measured as 9.4 percent. When broken down, the rate for black males -- 33.3 percent -- exceeded the rate of 7.9 percent for white males and 11.2 percent for Hispanic males.

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Levine's approach

Levine’s approach counts people who are out of work and looking for a job -- and nearly everyone else.

He looks at everyone between the ages of 16 and 64, including those who choose not to work, such as homemakers and early retirees, and those who cannot work, such as those behind bars or with disabilities. It also includes those in high school or college -- even those going back to school for more education to get a better job.

Levine’s report focuses strictly on male "joblessness." His approach puts the metro Milwaukee "jobless" rate for white males at 22.3 percent and 32 percent for Hispanic males. Like African-American males, those come in higher than the official numbers.

Levine argues that the same approach is used by scholars such as Harvard University’s William Julius Wilson. He says it is better because the official rate understates the number of people not working -- the federal measure does not include the long-term unemployed who have stopped looking for jobs.

But Levine’s approach, which he began using in 1990, overstates the number. Indeed, with his approach the rate could never reach zero -- a point he concedes in the report.

Levine’s approach has been controversial even within UWM.

In December 2009, UWM’s Employment and Training Institute criticized the 2009 version of Levine’s joblessness report for what it said was his "misuse of the ‘jobless’ statistic as a proxy for unemployment."  

According to the institute, Levine’s report counted 88 percent of 16- to 19-year-old metro Milwaukee black males as jobless, even though most of them were enrolled in school.

In response, Levine issued a 14-page rejoinder in which he quoted the sections of his studies that explain the differences between his jobless rate and the unemployment rate.

What do others say?

  • Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Levine’s jobless rate includes unemployed people who are no longer in the work force. But it doesn’t tell how many of those people choose not to work or are incapable of working, she said.
  • Kai Filion, a policy analyst with the Economics Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said Levine’s measure has greater value during a recession because it includes discouraged workers who have stopped looking for jobs. But it is wrong for anyone to portray the jobless rate as the unemployment rate, Filion said.

Yet that is what has happened, repeatedly, with those citing Levine’s report.

The result is a distorted view of a serious problem -- one being tackled most recently by the African-American Male Unemployment Task Force, created in 2010 by the Milwaukee Common Council.

Let’s bring our work to an end.

In his effort to catalog Milwaukee’s woes, former Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt said the city’s unemployment rate among black males tops 50 percent. Pratt said he was relating the finding of a recent UWM study. But that study uses a broader "joblessness" measure than the conventional unemployment rate, and looks at the full metropolitan area, not just the city. As such, Pratt falls into a trap others have before him -- stating one measure as another. We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Interview, Marvin Pratt, former acting mayor, broadcast on WISN-TV, Nov. 2, 2010

Interview, Marvin Pratt, former acting mayor of Milwaukee,  Nov. 12, 2010, Report: 53% of Milwaukee’s black males unemployed, Oct. 26, 2010, Black males see 53% unemployment in Milwaukee, Oct. 26, 2010

Interview, Laura Dresser, Center on Wisconsin Strategy associate director, Nov. 12, 2010

Interview, Kai Filion, Economic Policy Institute policy analyst, Nov. 12, 2010

Milwaukee Business Journal, Report: 53% of black males unemployed, Oct. 25, 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Pratt seizes momentum, June 23, 2003

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, It’s time to address black male unemployment, Nov. 6, 2010

Milwaukee Magazine, Exaggerating black unemployment again, Nov. 9, 2010

Milwaukee Social Development Commission, Structural issues impacting black male unemployment opportunities in metro Milwaukee

Milwaukee Common Council, African-American Male Unemployment Task Force

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, Marc Levine biography

Phone and e-mail interviews, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee urban studies professor Marc Levine, Nov. 15 and 16, 2010

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, Race and male joblessness in Milwaukee: 2008, September 2009

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, The crisis deepens: Black male joblessness in Milwaukee -- 2009, October 2010

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, Mismeasuring joblessness, August 2010

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, Drilldown on African-American male unemployment and workforce needs(page 9), December 2009

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, How the government measures unemployment

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment rates for metropolitan areas -- 2009

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Metropolitan Milwaukee unemployment rates by sex and race, 2009 (page 199 of report, page 14 of pdf)

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Regional and state employment and unemployment summary, Oct. 22, 2010

Eric Von, WMCS-AM radio host, 4th Street Forum(comments at 31:45), Oct. 22, 2010

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Marvin Pratt, former acting mayor of Milwaukee, says black male unemployment tops 50 percent

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