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Expand chart
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.

Go deeper

Senate retirements could attract GOP troublemakers

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Roy Blunt's retirement highlights the twin challenge facing Senate Republicans: finding good replacement candidates and avoiding a pathway for potential troublemakers to join their ranks.

Why it matters: While the midterm elections are supposed to be a boon to the party out of power, the recent run of retirements — which may not be over — is upending that assumption for the GOP in 2022.

Congressional diversity growing - slowly

Data: Brookings Institution and Pew Research Center; Note: No data on Native Americans in Congress before the 107th Congress; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The number of non-white senators and House members in the 535-seat Congress has been growing steadily in the past several decades — but representation largely lags behind the overall U.S. population.

Why it matters: Non-whites find it harder to break into the power system because of structural barriers such as the need to quit a job to campaign full time for office, as Axios reported in its latest Hard Truths Deep Dive.

Staff for retiring Senate Republicans a K Street prize

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The retirements of high-profile Senate Republicans mean a lot of experienced staffers will soon be seeking new jobs, and Washington lobbying and public affairs firms are eyeing a potential glut of top-notch talent.

Why it matters: Roy Blunt is the fifth Republican dealmaker in the Senate to announce his retirement next year. Staffers left behind who can navigate the upper chamber of Congress will be gold for the city’s influence industry.