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Black workers are still not sharing in the bounty of nation-wide employment gains

"We need to start recognizing these disparities, or we're going to become more comfortable with them."

Even as the nation climbs back from its pre-recession unemployment level, the bounty isn't filling the pocketbooks of black Americans. (Getty Images)
Even as the nation climbs back from its pre-recession unemployment level, the bounty isn't filling the pocketbooks of black Americans. (Getty Images)

Embedded in the nation’s increasingly favorable unemployment statistics — the country is currently in the midst of a record decline in the number of out-of-work Americans — is the persistent fact that black workers aren’t sharing equitably in this rampant job growth.

In September, the most recent period when figures are available, approximately 134,000 jobs were created and the national unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 percent, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s fantastic news for the nation at large.

But if you drill down into the bureau’s figures, you’ll find that black workers are not celebrating on par with their white colleagues. At 6 percent, the black unemployment rate is nearly twice that of white workers, at 3.3 percent. By way of comparison, Latino workers posted a 4.5 percent unemployment rate, and the Asian rate was nearly equal to whites’ at 3.5 percent.

(October’s unemployment figures are scheduled to be released on Friday. Analysts expect a continuation of these trends with little-to-no narrowing of the gap between white and black employment.)

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In a recently released state-by-state review of unemployment rates by race and ethnicity for the third quarter of 2018, Janelle Jones, an analyst at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, found that 12 states have a black unemployment rate that is at least twice as large as the white unemployment rate. What’s more, in each of the 21 states and the District of Columbia, for which figures were available, the black unemployment rate was higher in each of them than it was for white Americans.

Jones’ findings further underscore the fact that even as the nation climbs back from its pre-recession unemployment level, the bounty isn’t filling the pocketbooks of black Americans. For instance, she found the nation’s highest black unemployment rate was in the District of Columbia at 12.4 percent, producing a 6.2-to-1 disparity with white workers in the Nation’s Capitol. Worse, the District has the dubious distinction of having the highest black unemployment rate during the previous eight quarters — this despite the fact that Washington, DC and its surroundings are the third-richest metropolitan area in the country and home to the most affluent population on the East Coast.

Other high unemployment states for black workers included Illinois (9.3 percent), Louisiana (8.5 percent), Alabama (7.1 percent, and New York (7 percent). The lowest unemployment rate for black Americans were Massachusetts and Virginia, both with (3.8 percent).

Among Latino workers, the highest state unemployment rate is in Nebraska (5.9 percent), followed by Connecticut (5.7 percent), Arizona (5.6 percent), Pennsylvania (5.6 percent), and Washington (5.6 percent).

In two states — Colorado and Georgia — the Hispanic unemployment rate was lower than the white unemployment rate. In Colorado, Latino workers’ 2.3 percent unemployment rate was lower than the 2.9 percent rate for white workers, and in Georgia, Latino unemployment rate was 2.8 percent, compared to 3 percent for white workers.

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“As the economy continues to recover, all racial and ethnic groups are making employment gains,” Jones said in a statement released with her report earlier this week. “But policymakers should make sure that the recovery reaches everyone before taking their foot off the gas.”

Bloomberg columnist Justin Fox agreed, writing recently that “[b]lack Americans really have been making employment gains in recent years – and they’ll probably keep making them as long as this expansion continues. Which is one more reason to root for it to keep going.”

As Fox described it the falling unemployment rate is, on the whole, a positive development for all Americans, especially black workers in their “prime working” ages between 25 and 54. At present, he said the gap between black and white workers in that realm is at an “all-time low” (noting that such figures can only be compared since 1994 when the federal government began reporting “prime working age” economic figures).

But Andre Perry, a Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program Fellow, cautioned against celebrating too soon. In a recent U.S. News & World Report interview he argued it’s way too early to cheer the economy’s recovery so long as a racial gap exists in employment.

“We need to start talking about prosperity and not whether people have a job. We need to start looking more deeply at equality,” said Perry, who focuses his research on majority-black populated cities in the U.S. “Because when black folks are doing well, that really means America is doing well.”

In other words, Perry says the celebratory narrative on the economy is almost exclusively the story of impressive gains for white workers and tolerance for black workers who continually lag behind.

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“Right now, when we’re looking at full employment, what we’re really saying is this is a state of white employment,” Perry said. “We’re willing to base our monetary policy upon that stage and not really cater to the black unemployment rate that is still wanting. You can be at full employment in one population and be in a recession in another. . . . We need to start recognizing these disparities, or we’re going to become more comfortable with them.”