MIAMI (AP) — Taking the microphone at a church in a predominantly black neighborhood of Miami, the Rev. Jesse Jackson asked how many in the crowd knew someone looking for a job.
Most of the several hundred people in the televised town hall gathering stood up. How many knew someone facing foreclosure? Student loan debt? In jail? Considered suicide? Crowds of people stood up in answer to each of his questions.
"This is a state of emergency," the civil rights leader and one-time Democratic presidential candidate declared.
The Congressional Black Caucus organized a town hall gathering in Miami to address black unemployment rates Monday evening, one of five taking place in August in distressed communities across the country. At issue is the stubbornly high unemployment rate in the black community, now at 16.8 percent nationwide, more than double that for whites and a figure that doesn't even include those who've stopped looking for work.
U.S Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. and the caucus chairman, said representatives are frustrated at being unable to advance bills in Congress aimed at encouraging job growth. Caucus members have introduced more than 40 such bills since January and none of them have passed. Republicans took control of the House nearly nine months ago.
Now, the lawmakers are taking to the road to ensure angry constituents that they are doing all in their power to help, while offering a job fair in each city as assistance. In Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit, the events have drawn thousands, and more than 1,000 people streamed into a downtown convention center Tuesday morning for the Miami job fair. Another will be held in Los Angeles at the end of the month.
"We left the complaint counter and that's why we're on this tour," Cleaver said.
The mounting frustration over jobs is beginning to have political repercussions in the black community.
"Unemployment in South Florida, especially in the black community, is no longer a crisis," U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said before the event. "It's an epidemic."
The job fairs come amid a growing debate within the black community about the Obama administration's urban agenda. While black lawmakers have been reluctant to criticize the country's first black president, some are beginning to voice concern about the administration's focus on deficit reduction at a time of high joblessness and poverty in urban areas.
"I think our politicians need to step up and do a better job of helping people," said Lavern Eli, the executive director of Curley's House of Style in Miami's Model City neighborhood. "It's really like they're playing games with people's lives because people are hurting. The community is hurting. People are so desperate, just trying to survive."
Cleaver said he shares the community's frustration.
"I'm frustrated with the president, but I'm frustrated with me," Cleaver said in an interview Monday. "I'm frustrated with the tea party. Maybe I should have used my communications skills better to try to convince some of them to work with us. I'm frustrated with the Democratic leadership. The Republican leadership. The president. I think all of us bear some responsibility, some more than others, however."
At the town hall on Monday, congressional leaders, a White House representative, Jackson and a church leader fielded questions from an MSNBC moderator about what they've done to create jobs, reduce unemployment, push for another stimulus, and address the influence of tea party Republican legislators.
Don Graves, executive director of the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, told representatives and constituents that President Barack Obama is focused on every community in the nation, but acknowledged some have bit hit harder than others.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told him to be more specific: the black community.
"We've got to target where the greatest need is," she said.
Wilson said the job fair on Tuesday is expected to offer up to 3,000 jobs, from custodians to janitors, and draw upward of 5,000 people. She said unemployment in her district is about 17 percent, and as high as 40 percent for black males.
"I think the president is doing as much as he can, and I'm anxious to hear his proposal when we go back in September," Wilson said, referring to the president's job creation plan. "But if it includes any funding, we're going to have to fight. Because the tea party will stop him."
As the economy has struggled to recover, minorities have been disproportionately affected. An analysis of Census data released in July found that wealth gaps between whites and minorities have grown to their widest levels in a quarter-century, with whites on average having 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of Hispanics.
Algernon Austin, director of the race, ethnicity and economy program at the Economic Policy Institute, said a number of factors are pushing up the black unemployment rate, including a somewhat younger labor force, less-educated workers and discrimination. He pointed to several studies in which black and white workers presented the same qualifications to prospective employers. The black candidate consistently received less favorable responses.
"Even in good economic times, African American communities experience very high levels of unemployment," Austin said.
Tracey Turner, 40, of North Miami, came to Monday's event hoping to get some information on jobs. She has been out of work for nearly two years, after being laid off from her job as an accountant for Wal-Mart in September 2010.
Turner's unemployment benefits have expired and she is supporting four children. She has been working temp jobs but hasn't had any the last four months.
"It's killing me," she said.
Jaron Taylor, an 18-year-old Miami resident, said Tuesday he is desperately looking for work to help pay for college. Among the booths he visited was one set up by Starbucks.
"I have a good feeling," Taylor said. "The energy in this room is something. There's a good vibe. People are addressing the issue. They are making sure something will be done."
Reporter Harry R. Weber in Miami contributed to this report.