Mayor London Breed attends a graduation at the Chase Center Training class, a city workforce developement program.The Office of Economic and Workforce Development has $21 million in additional funds this year intended to target inequities in the Black community including the high unemployment rate. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

‘Defund the police’ money could address longstanding high Black unemployment rate

Even as San Francisco celebrated low unemployment during the tech-fueled boom years, there was a glaring disparity among Black residents. In 2018, the unemployment rate for Black residents was nearly three times the citywide average and the highest for any race.

But this fiscal year, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development has $21 million to spend on efforts to tackle this long standing disparity, among other racial inequities, as a result of the reinvestment of law enforcement funding in the Black community — The City’s response to the “defund the police” movement across the nation.

The amount of money is significant in that OEWD provided $19 million in grants last fiscal year for workforce development like training, employment referrals and removing barriers for people to get jobs. With the $21 million, the amount of spending this fiscal year has grown to $42.9 million in Mayor London Breed’s budget proposal, pending approval this month at the Board of Supervisors.

“There is no true equity without giving people opportunity to build wealth,” Supervisor Shamann Walton said last week at OEWD’s Workforce Investment San Francisco ​Board meeting, which discussed the reinvestment funds.

Walton and Breed previously jointly announced they would divert $120 million of funding from police and sheriff departments, $60 million in each of the next two years, and reinvest it in the Black community.

OEWD was put in charge of $21 million in each of the two years. The other funding goes to the Department of Public Health, $36 million in each of the two years, and the remaining $3 million per year goes to the Human Rights Commission, which is developing plans with the Black community for how the money is spent.

Sheryl Davis, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, is overseeing community meetings this month to develop recommendations on specific funding plans. A series of those meetings takes place Tuesday.

Joshua Arce, OEWD’s director of Workforce Development since 2018, said at last week’s workforce board meeting that the $21 million is to “advance Black employment equity.”

Black unemployment in San Francisco has for years been higher than the citywide average and the highest of any one race, according to data presented by Arce at the meeting based on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2018, citywide average unemployment was 4.7 percent, while Black unemployment was at 12.5 percent.

Data shows the disparity of Black unemployment in San Francisco. (Courtesy of OEWD)

Arce said that OEWD would “take this unique and potentially powerful set of resources that we’ve been charged with investing” and “see if we can make this change.”

The funding could go to expand existing programs. And the Human Rights Commission is expected to work with OEWD and other agencies in October to prepare a request for proposals based on recommendations from residents. The City would issue the request no later than December, according to OEWD.

Joaquín Torres, director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Department, told the San Francisco Examiner Monday that the feedback from the Black community, which includes the September meetings, could end up directing the funds to “a wide variety of OEWD programs.”

Those could include programs to reduce the academic achievement gap as well as for training and experience “necessary for Black adults and young adults to secure optimal employment opportunities in San Francisco.”

Other recommendations, he said, may put funding toward helping Black entrepreneurs, supporting a cultural district and assistance for Black-owned restaurants and contractors.

Breed and Walton are well aware of the Black unemployment disparity. When president of the Board of Supervisors, she held a hearing in 2017 on OEWD funding choices and the lack of results to draw down the disparity. At the time, Walton, then a head of the nonprofit Young Community Developers, shared Breed’s concerns.

What’s different with the spending of workforce dollars from the “defund the police” effort, city officials said, is that they are relying on the Black community to tell them what to do with the money.

“Black community members have for many years expressed that they feel invisible and ignored, that they have been told what the answers are rather than afforded the opportunity to self-express the answers they know to be right and true for their community,” Torres said.

A coalition of 50 Black lead organizations known as San Francisco Black Led Organizations Coalition, SFBLOC, offered some ideas at last week’s meeting.

Gwen Brown, executive director of the Inner City Youth nonprofit and a SFBLOC representative, spoke of the need to help Black residents secure well-paying jobs in the technology industry, something they have felt “left out of,” and having financial institutions “provide financial literacy and opportunities that lead to economic development for the sustainability of Black San Franciscans.”

The group also recommended salaries for those in job training or re-entry jobs as well as to provide child-care and transportation stipends or shuttles to areas that lack transit access.

Dr. Monique LeSarre, executive director of the Rafiki Coalition Leadership, and a representative of SFBLOC, said in an email to the Examiner that a reduction in the disparity in Black unemployment rate would be one indicator of the effort’s success.

“There are multiple areas where I believe we need intervention and systemic change,” LeSarre said. “If they focus on immediate shifts without attending to the generational impacts of disinvestment, actual past and on-going discriminatory practices and systems, and high threshold barriers, nothing will really change.

“There has to be focused points along the pipeline (of school to prison or school to low wage jobs or school to unemployment) we currently have,” she wrote.

She also emphasized the need for stronger anti-discrimination policies.

“There needs to be more than this little money attached to it. There has to be policies in place that actually hold systems accountable for the discrimination,” she wrote.

The spending comes during significant economic uncertainty, as The City’s unemployment rate has soared and industries have shut down due to the COVID-19 response.

As of July, San Francisco’s unemployment rate was 10.9 percent, when a year ago it was just 2.4 percent.

Between February and July, job losses in San Francisco and San Mateo counties totaled 131,900. Hardest hit industries include the hotels and other guest accommodations that saw a 13,000 job loss, a nearly 50 percent decline. The restaurant industry saw a 40 percent decline in employment, with jobs dropped from 82,200 to 48,700.

San Francisco has begun to allow more businesses to reopen this month.

“In so many ways, this moment is about community self-determination – Black voices, Black needs, and Black priorities – and a city willing to make race and the nuances of community need a prime factor in the programs it develops and delivers to meet community need,” Torres said.

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