While much of the us undergoes a halting recovery from the ‘contained depression’ of the early 1990s, America’s largest city has remained mired in its sharpest downturn since the days of Fiorello LaGuardia. New York’s unemployment rate—which spiked in January 1993 at 13.4 per cent—has continued at double-digit levels for nearly three years. In the rest of America, the recovery has produced two million new jobs, and the labour force has increased by four million. But New York’s labour force has shrunk by 200,000, and it is now going into its fifth year of job shrinkage: almost 400,000 payroll jobs have disappeared. Truly, Gotham has become the Bermuda Triangle of job loss.

Times are tough of course in most us central cities, but New York’s labour market has become truly aberrant. In a recent ranking of the 343 main metropolitan areas in Canada and the us, the Places-Rated Almanac ranked the city’s job market 343rd—dead last. Most recently available figures on unemployment within the 272 largest us metropolises show only seven with higher unemployment rates: they are almost entirely agricultural towns in California and Texas. No large city has a higher rate than New York.

The city’s unemployment rate averages many age, gender and ethnic outcomes. Analysis reveals even greater deviations from national norms. New York consistently ranks among the highest in the share of its youth who are unemployed and at the bottom in youth labour-force participation. In New York, white youth participate in the labour market at a rate of about 20 per cent. This is a fraction of the rate for black youth nationally. And in New York, black youth work at half the local white rate.

New York’s anomalous labour-market performance can’t be explained in conventional terms. There is no ‘jobs–spatial-skills mismatch’ in the New York area. The plentiful ‘information age’ jobs—for which the jobless were supposed to be mismatched—are shrinking as fast as manufacturing jobs. And there are no jobs for city jobless to be matched up with ‘out there’ in the suburbs. New York’s suburbs now have an industrial structure very similar to the city’s. And unemployment rates for suburban blacks are within a point or two of the rate for city blacks—averaging nearly 20 per cent.footnote1

Just to raise New York’s labour-force participation rate up to the national average of 66 per cent and lower the city’s unemployment rate down to the national average of 6.2 per cent would require roughly a million new jobs.