Updated Oct 6, 2018 - Economy

Black people are jumping back faster into the workforce

Note: Seasonally adjusted; Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics via Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Note: Seasonally adjusted; Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics via Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Jobless black people are taking full-time work at a higher rate than unemployed whites, amid a more favorable economy for a population whose prospects have historically been dimmer than for other races.

Why it matters: The data, reflected in the chart above, suggest a greater willingness by jobless black people to accept relatively low wages, while many whites continue to sit out the sizzling economy.

The 3.7% U.S. unemployment rate is at a whopping 49-year low, according to the September jobs report released today by the government. It was the 96th straight month of job gains, a new record.

  • Among black people, the unemployment rate ticked down to 6% from 6.3% the previous month. And here’s another, less-talked about statistic:
  • The share of the employed black population is converging closer to whites than it's been since the government began tracking the metric in 1972.

What's going on: A strong economy does not undo racism, and the same hurdles that make it difficult to find work have not disappeared. But a tighter labor market forces employers to look outside their usual pool of candidates to find workers.

  • Historically, joblessness disappears faster for whites, so the length of the economic recovery — the second-longest in history — is also key.
  • Black unemployment was significantly higher than white joblessness during the Great Recession. So black Americans have a lot more to rebound from. A steady, strengthening economy allows the time to do that.

The population we're talking about is non-institutionalized, but if it did include people in prison, the percentages might be even closer, since the rate of black people in prison is falling.

Between the lines: This dynamic — the convergence of the white and black employment-to-population ratios — is occurring despite wages not growing as much as they could be, said William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO. Last month, average hourly earnings grew 2.8% from the same month last year.

But pay for black Americans is still significantly less than other races.

  • One example: Median weekly earnings for white, full-time workers is $907, while black Americans made $683, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • "We are responding to low wages, but white people aren't," Spriggs told Axios.

Another economist agreed.

  • "There is some truth to the fact that if it's difficult to get a job or secure a job in a good or bad economy, you're not going to be extremely overly picky about it," said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.

I spoke to a few workers in Harlem about their motivation for taking work. None of their reasons had to do with pay:

  • Tray Baynard, who is black, re-entered the workforce 3 weeks ago and took a pay cut. The 27-year-old was hired as a construction worker at World Class Demolition in New York with a salary of $18 an hour, significantly less than the $26 he earned at his previous job. "I'm not getting paid as much, but it's a job so I took it," he said.
  • Onique Morris, who is also black, accepted a teaching position at New York-based P.S. 79 without shopping around for a better salary. "I would have taken it no matter what the pay was," said Morris, who is studying for a master's degree in education.
  • Another black worker, Terrence Riley, left a job at a Carolina Herrera retail shop after two years, and went on to be a production coordinator at Oscar de la Renta. Riley said opportunity outweighed other factors, including pay.

The bottom line: Black American unemployment is close to historic lows, but remains almost double that of white unemployment, which is at 3.3%. Still, black people are locking down more jobs or at least feeling confident enough to try.

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