Black Unemployment Nearly 15% and Not Improving

The July Employment Summary issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for July showed sharp improvement compared to June. Nonfarm payrolls rose 1.8% and the unemployment level dropped to 10.2%, about the same as it was at the worst point in the Great Recession. Most segments of the population posted an improvement. The rate among Black Americans did not. At 14.6%, it is 42% higher than that of the general population.

The BLS reported improvements across every segment other than Black Americans. The unemployment rate among adult men was 9.4%, among adult women 10.5% and for teenagers 19.3%. Among white Americans, the number was 9.2%. Among Asians, the figure was 12.0%, and among Hispanics it was also 12.0%. The jobless rate for Blacks showed little change from the 15.4% in June.

Why is the Black unemployment rate so high? There is no single reason. Several, however, are very likely.

Among the most frequently given reasons for the difference is that anti-discrimination laws are not enforced adequately. While this may be true, it has been difficult to identify, for the most part, among specific employers or in specific industries. That makes enforcement on a wide basis almost impossible.

Much easier to show 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 two 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 differences in the level of math and reading achievement may be based on the sums school districts spend on each student. According to EdBuild, in nonwhite districts, the amount is $11,682. 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 in federal prisons per 100,000 Black Americans, compared to 272 per 100,000 whites. 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 white unemployment. However, taken as a body, the research does show that the disadvantages for Black workers compared to white ones are extremely substantial.