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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

LaFayette speculates that Black workers' rising labor force participation rate is due to a difference in age between Black and white populations.

"The share of the U.S. Black population 65 or older is 10.6%, while 17.3% of white persons are 65 or older," he said. "So the much more steady participation of Black workers in the labor force is certainly lessening the decline that would otherwise occur."

Differences in life expectancy could explain this, he said.

"And the wealth of African Americans is a tiny fraction of the wealth of white households," he added. "So it may be that African Americans need to work longer, and can't retire as soon.”

But there may be a host of other explanations, said Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University. There is even research co-authored by Yale School of Management Dean Kerwin Charles on the correlation between video game use and declining work hours for young men.

"I don't think that we've necessarily cracked that nut yet about what it is," Logan said. "I think this is a time for getting some qualitative information and asking people what's happening. We know rates of post-secondary enrollment are going up, and yet we don't see the (overall) labor force participation rate going up."

As far as Black workers' increased labor force participation rate, Logan said he'd like to see more research done across labor markets in the U.S.


"Some localities already had relatively high wages for essential employees," he said. "Do we see faster growth in the areas where the wages have increased, on average, faster for essential employees? Do we see the labor force participation rate increasing faster there?"

Preliminary data shows that the overall labor force participation rate in Ohio was 60.2% in June, indicating an increase from 59.9% in May. However, the data isn't broken out by demographic or by city.

"We don't sample enough people to be able to do it by state," Logan said. "And I can tell you that the Columbus labor market is probably very different than the Cincinnati labor market, the Cleveland labor market and the Youngstown labor market. So, you'd want to break it down at a much finer level.”

Logan said it's important to keep an eye on the data over time to have a better sense of the outlook for Black workers.

"This is not an immediate revival of the American labor market and economy," he said. "Economies do not run like a light switch."

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