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Black Americans cross jobs milestone, though victory is tenuous

Jeanna Smialek and Jordyn Holman, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Central bankers, who are responsible for fostering low unemployment, have long expressed skepticism that jobs can provide a cure-all, painting them as a first step rather than an end solution.

"A generally strong labor market is helpful in alleviating all of those disparities, but we don't have a targeted set of tools," Fed Chair Janet Yellen told a bicameral group of legislators in testimony last week.

Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank, said the racial wealth disparity is the product of accumulated disadvantage over time -- which is why short-term economic gains aren't enough to bridge divides. It has "more to do with the historical exclusions from education, the housing market, the labor market and ultimately capital acquisition that African-Americans have had relative to whites."

Daly's work shows that explanations like education or area of residence don't account for a large and growing portion of the wage gap, though it's true that blacks graduate from high school and college at lower rates than white people. Hard-to-measure factors like discrimination or poor school quality could be contributing to the gap. Disadvantages like those matter a lot, because they might also restrain economic mobility.

Candace Watson knows what it's like to work against ingrained disadvantages. Now 30, she was raised by a single mother who lived in publicly assisted housing in a poor neighborhood of the Bronx. The borough has some of the worst economic mobility in New York City, research shows, meaning that kids born poor in the area usually stay that way.

But Watson's trajectory changed when her mother, Judith McCray, landed a steady job at Phipps Neighborhoods, a local community organization where Watson went to after-school programs. It offered child care and a decent wage, a combination that enabled McCray to go to college.

Watson benefited from her example, she says, and from community programs that took her on college visits and kept her busy. She followed in her mother's footsteps, getting a degree and ultimately attaining her master's.

Many in her childhood neighborhood now cycle through lower-wage jobs in retail or food service, precisely the kind that offer little security or wage growth, Watson said. Some drop out of the workforce entirely because they can't afford child care.


Watson said she's nervous that that situation will worsen as Phipps sees costs climb and funding stagnate, threatening to reduce the quality of the educational programming that helped her to go to college and, ultimately, prosper.

"Just getting a job itself is not enough," Watson said. Jobs that pay little and demand long hours don't "put you in a situation so that you can further educate yourself or advance in life."

(Shobhana Chandra contributed to this report)

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