Black unemployment is at a record low, but tight financial conditions could change that
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In April, the unemployment rate for Black workers hit 4.7%, its lowest point since the Labor Department started tracking the statistic in 1972. All told, Black unemployment has fallen nearly 12 percentage points since its pandemic peak — 16.1% — in April 2020. According to labor economist Michelle Holder, an associate professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York, the expansion of the warehouse and transportation sector is a big driver.
“Of the 3 million more jobs that the U.S. economy has now than it did in February 2020, a third of those jobs are in the transportation and warehousing industry,” Holder said. “That industry has the best representation in terms of Black male workers.”
Yet those gains are not being felt by everyone. Holder noted that Black women, in particular, have struggled to recover jobs lost during the pandemic. “The industries in which we are concentrated, which includes public-sector work, leisure and hospitality, and it particularly includes education and social services, those sectors really took much longer to recover,” she said.
Furthermore, Holder predicts those job gains for Black men could start to reverse as the Federal Reserve keeps financial conditions tight to control inflation. “Black men are well-represented in those industries that are vulnerable to business cyclicality,” she said.
The following is an edited transcript of Holder’s conversation with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal.
Kai Ryssdal: When you saw that Black unemployment in this economy was at record lows, what did you think?
Michelle Holder: Well, my first thought was, “Yay!” My first thought was, “This is great.” My first feelings were, I have to admit, celebratory.
Ryssdal: OK, I don’t want to rain on the parade, but I wonder if your second thought was, “Uh-oh.”
Holder: Yeah, actually, it was. So I quickly sort of regrouped and said, “Well, let me dig deeper into the numbers.” And, you know, a couple of things. The first is that there was a decline in the labor force participation rate among Black workers. Now, you know, I will say that that is part of really a secular trend in terms of a declining labor force participation rate in this country. Not necessarily surprised by that, but there was a real discernible decline. But the other thing is, well, what are the jobs that’s really driving this decline in the unemployment rate? And I have to say that the quality of jobs that are kind of, you know, pushing this unemployment rate to such a low level is not that great.
Ryssdal: Can we separate here for a second, Michelle, Black men versus Black women? Because, you know, we’ve been talking for literally three years about these kinds of things, and from early on, we talked about Black women, and I want to get back to them. But I want to talk, first of all, about Black men and their labor force participation rate and what kinds of jobs they are getting.
Holder: Absolutely. So what’s really been behind these numbers is increase in job holding among Black men in the labor market. And so let me be specific. Of the 3 million more jobs that the U.S. economy has now than it did in February 2020, a third of those jobs are in the transportation and warehousing industry. That industry has the best representation in terms of Black male workers. The problem is the transportation and warehousing sector is a low-wage sector.
Ryssdal: OK. So Black men getting jobs, but not great jobs. What about Black women? Because early on in our series of conversations, we talked about centering Black women in this economy, how much more fundamental they are, actually, than women of most other races and ethnic categories to the security of their families. So, what about Black women?
Holder: Sure. So Black women are, for the most part, back to where we were, but it took us longer. And also, we’re not necessarily the reason why the Black unemployment rate is so low. The industries in which we are concentrated, which includes public-sector work, it includes leisure and hospitality, and it particularly includes education and social services. Those sectors really took much longer to recover. And in fact, public-sector employment has not completely recovered. And so it’s ironic that on the one hand, in terms of the change in the industrial mix of our economy, it benefited Black men, but it didn’t benefit Black women.
Ryssdal: Right, right. So let’s frame this now in the situation we are in, in the situation that we’re about to be in for the next, you know, six to 18 months in this economy. Inflation is still a factor — coming down, but still a factor. Thus, the Federal Reserve is going to probably keep interest rates where they are for some time. We know that higher interest rates hit people at the lower end of the economic spectrum harder. And they lose, frankly, when interest rates are high and the economy is slow. So are Black workers in this economy positioned better now because of the gains, or are they still disproportionately vulnerable?
Holder: I would have to say they’re vulnerable. If the job market really begins to contract, it’s going to be workers of color, Black, Latinx — it’s going to be workers with lower levels of education, and it’s going to be younger workers. And so the gains that have really been experienced by Black workers, particularly Black men, it’s quite vulnerable because Black men are well-represented in those industries that are vulnerable to business cyclicality.
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