Recruiting, Talent

The Forgotten Workforce

President Trump has said that “African American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded.”

Source: Nastco / iStock / Getty


Based on December 2017 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and referencing a 10-year chart of African American unemployment from the BLS, this seems to be true. However, this snapshot doesn’t tell the entire story.

Behind the Numbers

For one thing, the BLS didn’t start tracking unemployment by race until 1972. In previous years, it looked at the unemployment rate for the entire population, and there were many years when overall unemployment was lower than it is today. In 1953, overall unemployment was 2.9 percent. So although African American unemployment rate wasn’t “recorded,” it may have been lower at some point in the past.
In addition, comparing current African American unemployment to African American unemployment in the recent past doesn’t take into account an arguably more important statistic: African American unemployment compared to white unemployment. When comparing a 10-year chart for African American unemployment with a 10-year chart for white unemployment, it’s clear that a significant gap remains—and that the gap has basically remained unchanged for at least 10 years.
A new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a non-profit think tank, finds that the gap has remained unchanged for 50 years. It also finds that it is indeed significant: The unemployment rate for African Americans was and remains approximately twice the unemployment rate for white Americans.

Where the Gaps Are

The report looks at the African American economic and social inequalities in 1968 in comparison to 2018. Among key findings, as detailed in the report, are:

  • African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968 but still lag behind whites in overall educational attainment. More than 90 percent of younger African Americans (ages 25 to 29) have graduated from high school, compared with just over half in 1968—which means they’ve nearly closed the gap with white high school graduation rates. They are also more than twice as likely to have a college degree as in 1968 but are still half as likely as young whites to have a college degree.
  • The substantial progress in educational attainment of African Americans has been accompanied by significant absolute improvements in wages, incomes, wealth, and health since 1968. But black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites, and the median white family has almost 10 times as much wealth as the median black family.
  • With respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation has either failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened. In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968 [EPI references data from the Council for Economic Advisers], and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.

The report’s authors point out that find that while African Americans today are much better educated than they were in 1968—and in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968—they are still economically disadvantaged relative to whites.

Finding Solutions

The issue, according to the authors, is society itself.
“Black Americans have clearly put a tremendous amount of personal effort into improving their social and economic standing, but that effort only goes so far when you’re working within structures that were never intended to give equal outcomes,” says Valerie Wilson, director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy and an author of the report with Janelle Jones and John Schmitt.
Jones cites “structural racism” as the “root cause” of economic inequality. “Solutions must be bold and to scale, which means we need structural change that eliminates the barriers that have stymied economic progress for generations of African American workers,” she says.

Paula Paula Santonocito, Contributing Editor for Recruiting Daily Advisor, is a business journalist specializing in employment issues. She is the author of more than 1,000 articles on a wide range of human resource and career topics, with an emphasis on recruiting and hiring. Her articles have been featured in many global and domestic publications and information outlets, referenced in academic and legal publications as well as books, and translated into several languages.