Black Unemployment in America Is Almost 50% Above the National Average

Douglas A. McIntyre

Most experts believe that the August jobs report showed some pressure on the economy due to trade wars, especially with China. The unemployment rate was steady at 3.7% compared to July, and it remained near a five-decade low. The economy added 130,000 jobs last month. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported unemployment rates by sex, race and age.

The data from the bureau shows that the black unemployment rate, at 5.5%, is 49% above the national average. The unemployment rates among the other largest portions of the population in August were 3.4% for white Americans, 4.2% for Hispanics and 2.8% for Asians. The jobless rate was 3.4% for adult men. The rate for adult women was 3.3%. The level was 12.6% for teenagers or those between 16 and 19 years old.

The overall unemployment rate has dipped modestly from August a year ago when it was 3.9%. The rate among white Americans is down from 3.5% last August, and among black Americans, it is down from 6.5%. The rate among Asians was 3.0% last August. While unemployment rates have dropped among almost all demographic groups in a year, the gulf between black Americans and the balance of the population is large.

Several theories suggest why the difference between the black and national jobless rates is so large. None is considered definitive by all experts.

Among the most frequently given reasons for the difference is that “anti-discrimination” laws for the workplace are not enforced adequately. While this may be true, it has been difficult to identify at specific employers or in specific industries. Much easier to prove is the gulf in education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were large gaps in reading and math achievement between black and white children in grades 4 and 12. Data was taken in 1992 and 2015, and no significant improvement was seen between the periods. Education is a marker of both the extent to which people are hired and the level of income for those who are employed.

Some of the difference in the level of math and reading achievement may be based on the sums school districts spend on each student. According to EdBuild, the amount is $11,682 in nonwhite districts, while in mostly white districts the figure is $13,908. The total gap nationwide means “nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts, despite serving the same number of students.”

Another major reason for the employment gap is incarceration rates, many experts argue. According to Pew, “In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners.” That means there were 1,549 prisoners per 100,000 blacks, compared to 272 per 100,000 whites. The data was based on numbers from federal prison. The hurdles to employment for people who have been in prison are high.

No single theory or piece of research by itself accounts for the difference in black and national unemployment. However, taken as a body, the research does show that the disadvantages for black Americans are substantial compared to the entire country.

Group Rate
Overall 3.7%
Adult Men 3.4%
Adult Women 3.3%
Teenagers 12.6%
White Americans 3.4%
Blacks Americans 5.5%
Asian Americans 2.8%
Hispanics 4.2%