Poverty and the Race Factor

Several recent reports call attention to something we all know but perhaps don’t talk about as much as we should. Poverty is not an equal opportunity condition.

No matter what measure you look at, racial minorities (except for Asian-Americans) rank well below whites. Blacks, along with Native Americans, generally fare worst. Here are a few of the many examples in the Applied Research Center’s new report on race and the recession:

  • In March 2009, the unemployment rate for blacks was 13.3%, as compared to 7.9% for whites. (Figures for May are 14.9% versus 8.6%.)
  • In all but 4 of the past 15 years, the rate of blacks who were under-employed, i.e., employed part-time though they wanted full-time work or unemployed but no longer looking for a job, was twice the rate for whites.
  • The recent median weekly earning for blacks was $577, as compared to $785 for whites.

It’s conventional to attribute these gaps to ongoing race discrimination. And that’s certainly a factor. For example:

  • The ARC report shows that blacks without a high school diploma earn 76 cents for every dollar whites without the diploma earn. For those with an advanced degree, the gap is just 1 cent less.
  • A study out of Princeton found that blacks without a criminal record were less likely to be called back after a job interview than whites with a criminal record.

But the root causes of the inequities are more complex than persistent race discrimination. A new book by sociologist William Julius Wilson signals his view in its title–More Than Just Race.

Wilson argues that inner-city blacks are poor due a combination of systemic causes–principally the legacy of past discrimination and changes in our economy that have significantly reduced living-wage job opportunities for people without more than a high school education.

An issue brief by the Center for Economic and Policy research adds more factors:

  • The share of manufacturing jobs held by blacks has steadily declined–from 23.9% in 1979 to 9.8% in 2007.
  • For this and perhaps other reasons, their union membership has dropped from 31.7% in 1983 to 15.7% in 2007.

Add to all these the fact that black males are significantly more likely than white males to be incarcerated–and thus to have a major strike against them when they later try to get a job. A new report by the Center for American progress puts the black/white incarceration ratio at 7/1.

A pre-recession report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute documented the large and growing race gap here in Washington, D.C.

  • In 2006, blacks were 5 times more likely to be unemployed than whites–the greatest disparity since the mid-1980’s.
  • Only 51% of blacks were working, as compared to 62% in 1988.
  • The median income for black households was slightly lower than in 1980, while the median income for white households had increased 68%.

Lack of postsecondary education was–and still is–a primary factor here. According to a 2008 report co-authored by DCFPI and DC Appleseed:

  • In 2003, only 32% of D.C. minority residents had a postsecondary degree, as compared to 93% of non-Hispanic whites.
  • Only 70% of minority adults had  even a high school diploma, as compared to 1% of non-Hispanic whites.

Our local economy is somewhat unusual. But I think it’s in some ways a forecast of things to come–a shift to what DCFPI characterizes as a “high-skills, knowledge-based economy,” combined with a growing demand for at least some postsecondary education and/or specialized skills training.

But will black youth come out of our public schools with the basic competencies they’ll need to cope with postsecondary-level coursework or other training that will qualify them for good jobs, with opportunities to advance?

For many, the prospects don’t look good. I’ll return to this in another posting.

2 Responses to Poverty and the Race Factor

  1. […] the current employment situation, this is not an equal opportunity problem. The large race gaps in employment and earnings are mirrored in measures of student performance. The most telling, I think, are the National […]

  2. […] So there’s an urgent need to build education and training into job creation programs, including meaningful work-learning opportunities for low-income youth. And we need, at long last, to commit to resolving other problems underlying the employment race gap. […]

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