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Black workers surpassed white workers in labor market participation for second time in history

Erica Thompson, The Columbus Dispatch on

Published in News & Features

“If (the employment-to-population ratio) is low, it means that they're not actually connecting to employment,” Jones said. “And this is honestly how we end up with an unemployment rate for Black workers that's 9.2%, which is very high. If the overall unemployment rate was 9.2%, we would be running around like our hair is on fire. Sometimes I’m disappointed—not with this Labor Department and not with this White House—when folks say that we are on our way to recovery when Black workers at a 9.2% unemployment rate is still very much an economic crisis with millions of workers facing devastation.”

By comparison, the national unemployment rate is 5.9% and preliminary data indicated a 5.2% unemployment rate for Ohio in June.

Still, Black workers, like everyone else, may be feeling optimism as employers increase wages to lure people back to work, Jones said. Workers currently have increased bargaining power, and that is when Black workers do best.

"We've seen workers who have been out of work for maybe a year say, 'Maybe I don't want to work for $2.13 (minimum cash wage) plus tips and have to get coughed on and never get any paid leave and never have any sick time,'" Jones said. "I think that's phenomenal. We're seeing it in industries where Black and brown workers, particularly Black and brown women, are overrepresented.”

How age, wealth affect labor force participation

It is important to stress that the labor force participation rate also tracks people who are looking for work, and Black people may not be able to afford to stop looking—even for low-wage jobs.

 

“We know that Black workers, on average, are less likely to have a financial cushion, or less likely to have generational wealth that could be a cushion during this time," Jones said.

The overall labor force participation rate has been declining for decades. The rate for white workers has been following that trend, while Black workers, specifically Black men, have been seeing an upward trend in recent years (excluding a sharp decline during the onset of the coronavirus).

The reason is an aging population, said economist Bill LaFayette, owner of the Columbus economic consulting firm Regionomics.

"The male participation rate has been declining for decades since the 1940s," he said. "Men are living longer, and more of us have reached an age where we can retire. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rate rose steadily until about 2000, and then it started declining. And so what's happened is the overall participation rate was rising until about 2000, and women were coming into the labor force. And now women's retirements are dominating their entry into the labor force.”

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