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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

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan group of senators seeks coronavirus stimulus deal

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At least eight Republican and Democratic senators have formed an informal working group aimed at securing new coronavirus spending during the lame-duck session, a move favored by President-elect Biden, two sources familiar with the group tell Axios.

Why it matters: It may be the most significant bipartisan step toward COVID relief in months.

FCC chairman to depart in January

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Ajit Pai will leave his post as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Jan. 20, the agency said today.

Why it matters: Pai's Inauguration Day departure is in keeping with agency tradition, and could set up the Biden administration with a 2-1 Democratic majority at the FCC if the Senate fails to confirm another Trump nominee during the lame-duck period.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
3 hours ago - Economy & Business

GM's shrinking deal with Nikola

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

General Motors will no longer take an equity stake in Nikola Corp. or build its pickup truck, under a revised deal that still envisions GM as a key tech supplier for Nikola's planned line of electric and fuel cell heavy trucks.

Driving the news: The revised agreement Monday is smaller in scope than a draft partnership rolled out in September that had included a $2 billion stake in the startup and an agreement to build its Badger pickup.