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The state of black workers still needs improvement

African Americans face inequalities in workforce

Janell Ross

In 1935, when Congress passed the Social Security Act, supporters declared it one of the pivotal moments in the country’s history.  

The act, which created a guaranteed income source for most American workers during retirement, was a declaration of the country’s faith that the economy would not only rebound from the Great Depression but would also flourish.

But for black workers, there was just one problem.

In order to secure the support of a contingent of Southern Democrats in Congress, the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt — architects of many of the policies that continue to govern work, pay and workplace conditions — struck a deal. Domestic workers and farmhands — fields in which nearly two-thirds of all blacks were employed at the time — were excluded. A full 65 percent of black American workers got nothing. No guaranteed retirement. No guaranteed income in old age.

The exclusion remained in place until the 1950s, just another example of the uphill climb that black workers have faced throughout history. Indeed, the real story of work in the United States is one that includes slavery, along with other forms of exploitation and unfair treatment that have rendered some workers better paid than others, and more often recognized and rewarded. And those divisions have often occurred along racial lines. That history makes the state of the black worker in 2013 worthy of a closer look this Labor Day.

“Black unemployment is and has long been a crisis, but somehow unseen or at least largely misunderstood,” says Algernon Austin, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. “The worst levels of unemployment experienced by whites nationally correspond to the absolute best that blacks have ever experienced in the last 50 years.”

Still, some of the news is good.

Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, a large share of the black population is employed or actively seeking work. In fact, when the Department of Labor released its first comprehensive post-recession look at black workers, it found that in 2011, blacks made up roughly 13 percent of the nation’s population and more than 11 percent of the country’s workforce. That trend has continued.

While black unemployment remains elevated, things are improving. In July, 12.6 percent of black workers, or roughly 2.35 million men, women and teens, remained unemployed. Black unemployment has edged downward for much of 2013. It has also dropped off sharply from its January 2010 high of 16.5 percent.

African American “educational-attainment levels” — that’s the term that economists use to describe just how far individuals go in school — continue to climb. In fact, nearly 85 percent of black Americans over the age of 25 have completed high school, and just over 20 percent have a bachelor’s degree or graduate degrees, according to the most recent federal data. Both figures have climbed considerably in the last two decades. In addition, the share of black students completing undergraduate or graduate degrees has nearly doubled.

Education boosts most workers’ wages and has, to a limited degree, narrowed the nation’s racial income gap. Black workers have also become the most unionized portion of the American workforce. Although opinions vary about the value of union membership, when it comes to pay, the benefits are clear and indisputable.

But the fight continues for equal pay and on-the-job advancement, as well as access to new, developing and high-paying industries.

For most of the last 50 years, black unemployment has remained about two times higher than the white joblessness rate, and in some major cities more than a third of working-age black men don’t have jobs. That trend continues in 2013.

Also worth noting is that education has proved to be of limited benefit for black workers. Black workers with college degrees enjoy a lower unemployment rate than those with only high school diplomas. But at every educational level, black workers remain unemployed at roughly twice the rate of their white peers.

In 2012, the unemployment rate for African Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree sat at 6.3 percent. That figure is equal to the unemployment rate experienced by white Americans with some college education but no bachelor’s degree.

Black workers remain clustered in industries such as government, the service industry and retail — the last two of which offer some of the nation’s lowest wages. And a continued spate of layoffs and furloughs in one sector that has consistently provided middle-class wages to black workers — state, local and federal government — not only has reduced the share of black people who are working but has also cut into average weekly take-home pay.

Government figures for weekly median wages of full-time workers point to another troubling racial economic inequality. In June, the median weekly wage for full-time salaried and hourly-wage black workers sat at $634, compared with $799 for white workers. And although white workers’ overall wages climbed by a few dollars in the second quarter of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012 — because of slight gains made by white women — black workers’ wages fell by almost the same amount that white workers’ earnings rose.

Although the gender wage gap receives a great deal of annual attention, the difference between the median wages of men and women persists and takes on additional economically damaging forms across racial lines. In 2012, white women working full time earned a median wage of $719 each week compared with $879 earned by their white male peers. Meanwhile, black men employed full time earned a median of $665 each week, while black women earned $599. Latinas working full time took home the nation’s lowest median weekly wages: $521.

In black families, women’s wages have long accounted for a larger share of household income than in white families. But deindustrialization — the disappearance of manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs beginning in the late 1970s — has particularly affected the employment prospects of black men. Almost the same percentage of black women and black men are working, a situation that has never existed for any other racial or ethnic group. That fact indicates that very few black families can survive on a man’s income alone.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York City who covers political and economic issues. This article first appeared in The Root.