At its worst point in the Great Depression, the national unemployment rate hit 24.9 percent. In Buffalo today, the unemployment rate for black males is 51.4 percent, highest in the nation and more than double that incomprehensible figure from 1933. For the city's white males, the rate is 25.3 percent, still higher than the worst of the Depression years.
These are catastrophic numbers, the rancid outgrowth of a sludge of dysfunctions that include government, racial prejudice and personal apathy. Numbers like these do not merely suggest the misery of thousands, but they portend generations more of the same. And as the economy slides, the numbers are likely to get worse.
The figures were produced by an economics professor in Milwaukee, Wis., where the black male unemployment rate registered 51.1 percent, second to Buffalo. White unemployment, although high, was significantly better than Buffalo's at 18.6 percent. The analysis looks specifically at the cities involved, not at their suburbs or regions -- and one major aspect of this might be the urban concentrations of poverty and race that make getting to suburban jobs difficult for potential city-dwelling workers, who eventually just rely on social safety nets.
But such high unemployment is a problem that must be addressed from all conceiveable sides -- including education, job training and tax policy -- and by multiple sources, from teachers to church pastors to state legislators. More than that, it is an entry-level test for all civic leaders, especially the elected ones. If they don't understand the need to mobilize against the cancerous influence of crushing unemployment, they are not up to the jobs they hold.
Schools and social workers have big roles to play to change the dynamic that feeds Buffalo's towering jobless rates, but the main work must be done in Albany. Buffalo's economic problems are not solely the fault of state government, but Albany's policies on taxes, labor and power are driving away jobs. Even its internal policies that concentrate power in Senate and Assembly leaders are corrosive, discouraging any change in the disastrous status quo.
This is the time for Albany to take a new direction. With the state's revenues in a nose dive and no relief in sight, many leaders will be willing to make hard decisions that could help relax the grip of decades of political and economic abuse. A new Legislature will be elected next month. Together with New York's still-new governor, they could begin to reform policies that helped drag Buffalo down, and push its jobless rate skyward.