Buncombe County’s unemployment rate stands at just over 4%. But the same rate for the county’s African-American community is several times higher. Efforts to bring that down have been slow moving.
African-American unemployment in Buncombe County can run even higher in certain neighborhoods. Like Asheville’s Southside community. “Unemployment is 48%”, says J. Hackett, the executive director of Green Opportunities, a job training center based in the Southside neighborhood. Hackett explains why it’s been so difficult to bring that number down. “If the fact of the matter is 3 out of 4 African-American men have something on their criminal background, then that means we’ve deduced the workforce to 25% of African-American men. So out of 4 African-American men, only one is 'employable'. And that’s a problem.”
Hackett adds barriers to employment for those with criminal convictions on their record are pervasive. It even affected him recently. One of the most successful job training programs at Green Opportunities is their catering program. A state agency in Western North Carolina had contracted with Green Opportunities to cater an event until a background check was done. “They were not allowed to do business with us because of what came up in the background check of me the executive director. Because there is a felony on my background. And I said ‘what if I were not the executive director? What if I were just some person and someone else was executive director?’ And what they told me was very shocking. The rule from the state is they are not allowed to do business with any company that knowingly employs anybody with this kind of charge.”
The General Assembly has most of the power to make changes that would remove some of these barriers, but thus far in 2017 only one bill on the issue has passed either chamber. A measure cleared the House that allows state agencies themselves to consider job applicants with convictions on their records, except for positions in public safety or those that require direct interaction with minors or the elderly.