obama_2008_web.jpgBlack unemployment in the United States reached 10.6 percent last month, up from 9.7 percent in July and an average of 8.8 percent during the first quarter of 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On Tuesday, Sept. 9, the Obama campaign seized on the statistic to attack both the Bush administration and the John McCain campaign.

The McCain campaign in Florida did not respond to a request for comment.

“I wish we could say that reaching 10.6 percent is the highest unemployment we've had under this administration,” said former Bill Clinton administration Labor Secretary Alexis Herman during a conference call with members of the black press Tuesday. “But we've actually seen rates as high as 11.5 percent.’’

Herman and other surrogates said economic issues would take center stage in an Obama presidency, and they assailed what Herman called “a constant economic deterioration for the African-American community” under George W. Bush. The overall unemployment rate rose to 6.1 percent last month, with unemployment for whites at 4.9 percent and for Hispanics at 7.7 percent.

“We've actually lost more than 500,000 jobs in the African-American community,” since Bush took office in 2001, including 55,000 jobs since December 2007, Herman said, citing U.S. Department of Labor statistics and contrasting the grim numbers of what she called record low unemployment, “the lowest since the Department of Education began collecting the data” during the Clinton years. 

“The fact is that when you look at the unemployment numbers” under Bush, she said, “we have lost good jobs in our community, particularly in construction and manufacturing, where we are disproportionately employed. Any attempts to continue to open the doors of the middle class and to move us up the economic ladder really have been stopped dead in its tracks by this administration.”

Herman said that by contrast, Obama has proposed increasing the minimum wage from the current $6.55 to $9.50 by 2011, which she said would disproportionately help black women, plus a “long-term plan to target urban areas” for economic development, rebuilding the infrastructure of American cities, ending tax breaks for employers who ship jobs overseas and providing tax breaks for companies that create jobs in the U.S.

Herman said Obama's policies would also target youth unemployment, since “the reality is that while most of the black community has been sitting on the bench for the last several years, our youth haven't even made it onto the field.”

Much of the conference call with the black press was devoted to attacking the Bush administration's economic record, along with the economic platform of Sen. John McCain.

“The key problem with McCain is that he has adopted the same economic philosophy that has failed us over the last eight years,” said Dr. Bill Spriggs, who chairs the economics department at Howard University. “He has agreed that he will continue the excessive tax cuts for those at the top of the income distribution, tax cuts that rob the treasury of the money it needs to make the investments in healthcare and infrastructure.”

Spriggs noted that not only did McCain vote against the 2007 minimum wage increase, but the Arizona senator was also “part of an effort with 27 of the most conservative senators who tried to repeal the minimum wage.”

McCain was part of a November 2006 filibuster over a Democratic proposal to increase the minimum wage, which had remained at $5.15 since 1997. And in January 2007, McCain and 27 fellow Republican senators voted for an amendment that would have repealed the federal minimum wage law.

While the focus of the call was on African-Americans, Spriggs and Herman noted that while blacks “are in the bottom of the boat, and when the water comes into the bottom of the boat, we're the first to notice it…the whole ship is sinking” economically.

“The price of a gallon of milk has gone up 42 percent” since Bush came into office, Herman said. “The price of a loaf of bread is up 48 percent. … Just to buy a tank of gas, a minimum wage worker today has to literally work a full day plus overtime just to buy a tank of gas to get to work. That's how the translation works for us in real terms.”

Herman and Spriggs also criticized McCain's opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, which would extend the deadlines for women to file unequal pay claims.

Spriggs said McCain “didn't show up for the vote, but said he would have voted against it because he didn't see any issue with unequal pay for women in the workplace.”

The law failed 56-42, though the Senate may take up the legislation again this fall.

Corey Ealons, director of African-American media outreach for the Obama campaign, said the McCain camp has been silent on such kitchen table issues.

“One of the prominent conversations we've been having since (the Democratic convention in) Denver is talking about the economy,” Ealons said. “If you look back at last week's RNC convention, barely did they mention the economy at all and they certainly didn't offer any solutions.”

Asked how the Obama campaign plans to get the media to focus on the candidates' economic plans, given the current fixation with McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Ealons said, “we're going to continue to talk about (economic issues) in real, concrete terms, and we feel that if we continue to do that, the American people will hear us.”


Photo: Sen. Barack Obama