The Employment Situation Report for October from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has almost nothing but good news. Nonfarm payrolls rose 638,000 and unemployment fell to 6.9% from 7.9% in September. The jobless rate has now dropped six months in a row. Almost every major industry added jobs last month. However, the jobs recovery is uneven. The data show that Black American unemployment was 80% higher than for white Americans last month.
By category, the unemployment rate was 6.7% for adult men, 6.5% for adult women, 13.9% for teenagers, 6.0% for whites, 10.8% for Blacks, 7.6% for Asians and 8.8% for Hispanics. In October 2019, the white unemployment rate was 3.2%. The rate for Black Americans was 5.5%.
Black unemployment always has been higher than the national average. Several theories suggest why the difference between the Black and white 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 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 of the 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 per 100,000 Black Americans, compared to 272 per 100,000 whites. The data was based on numbers from federal prisons. 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 are extremely substantial compared to whites. That, in turn, indicates the situation will not change.