Radolph Matthews, who lost his $60,000-a-year job two months ago, talks… (Photos By Katie Derksen…)
MILWAUKEE -- Radolph Matthews was taught that hope starts at home. He followed the path his strict father set out and checked all the right boxes. But there he was last week on his way to cash an unemployment check -- $388. He ran the numbers through his head -- $200 for the cellphone bill, $60 for gas for the truck and the rest for food for nine people.
"I thought, I got my MBA, I'm set. I graduated with honors. I'm perfect. All of a sudden all of that was snatched from up under me," said Matthews, whose $60,000-a-year job at a nonprofit group was eliminated two months ago. "It's days before Christmas. I have four babies in the house."
At this moment, Milwaukee is a hauntingly jobless place for African Americans, who are more likely to be out of work than whites, Hispanics or Asian Americans. It's a reality reflected in the Matthews home, where Radolph's wife, Daniela, is the family's provider. His mother-in-law is disabled. His wife's sister has a newborn and is unemployed, and his wife's brother, who stays with them sometimes, also has no job.
For black people in Wisconsin, the jobless numbers reached a new high in October, the month Matthews lost his job. The unemployment rate for African Americans surpassed that of every other state, reaching an average of 22 percent for the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, the unemployment rate is 10 percent, but according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, nearly one out of every two black men in Milwaukee is not working, compared with 18.1 percent of white men and 22.1 percent of Hispanic men.
Unemployment or fear of it consumes conversations in corners of this city of 600,000, and it sounds nothing like the talk about jobs in Washington.
The same day Matthews cashed his unemployment check, President Obama stood outside a Home Depot in Alexandria pushing for tax rebates for home energy-efficiency renovations -- an idea dubbed "cash for caulkers." The next day, House members cast a largely symbolic vote on a $150 billion jobs package that won't be debated until next year. The Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, continued to prod the White House and Congress to do more for unemployed black people, spending a late night on the House floor reading flowery resolutions to an empty chamber about their districts' troubles.
Milwaukee's jobless are wrestling with those troubles. Four times the usual number of people are showing up at the emergency food pantry saying they recently lost their jobs. A training program promoting "green" jobs for women and minorities has 30 slots but nearly 150 applicants. And Matthews, who has applied for more than 45 jobs each week for the past three weeks, says his advanced degree hasn't eased his search.
In interviews with more than 30 African Americans here, the emotions among the jobless ranged from deflated to defiant, angry to hopeless. Nearly all said their frustrations have not affected their support for Obama. Most blamed Wall Street or the Bush administration for the deteriorating economy, though some said they think Obama should do more to create jobs. A few sided with members of the black caucus who have accused the president and those around him of not being sensitive to the higher unemployment rates among blacks.
All the same, the long-standing problem of joblessness among blacks in Milwaukee -- only intensified by this latest recession -- holds opportunity and fear for the people here. There is some hope that the federal government will find a way to spur job creation, and there is fear that the rest of the country will recover, leaving chronically jobless communities jobless.
That's what scares Vanessa Luster, an unemployed 42-year-old mother of two sons. On Tuesday she applied for technical school. On Wednesday she applied for food stamps.
"It's a mess out here," she said, standing inside the Milwaukee Hunger Task Force office.
Luster, who was born in the city, said her parents had a more stable life. Her mother worked off and on at the post office. Her stepdad worked in cutting and leather tanning. Government and manufacturing jobs were the way to a solid middle-class life for Luster's family and many other black families.
Everyone has lamented the havoc wreaked by deindustrialization, but Luster points out that right now the post office isn't hiring, either. She applied there recently.
"He should send more help to the community," Luster said of Obama before heading out into subzero weather.
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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a two-term Democrat who recently announced his candidacy for governor, remembers a time when a worker could quit a first-shift job and have another by the third shift. "We know that this is a big problem," he said of the double-digit black unemployment rate.