Digging through the demographic data in the latest job numbers, one of the clear winners of the last few months has been black women. Since December, they’ve knocked more than 3 percentage points off their unemployment rate, from 13.9 percent to 10.8 percent. That’s the biggest drop over the last five months for any single demographic group broken out by race, sex, and age by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Education, health care, and retail appear to be factors. All three sectors were among those that posted the largest job gains last month.
Unemployment among black men dropped from 15.7 percent in December to 13.6 percent in April. For white women, the rate has essentially remained unchanged at 6.8 percent, which is the same rate as white men. Total white unemployment remains well below total black unemployment, though the gap has narrowed over the past year. In April 2011, white unemployment was exactly half that of black unemployment, 8.1 percent compared with 16.2 percent. Now the difference is 6.8 percent compared with 13 percent.
Falling unemployment among black women is not a function of people dropping out of the workforce. The employment participation rate of black women has steadily increased over the last few months, from 53.5 percent in December, to 56.1 percent in April. Employment participation has actually fallen among white women, down nearly a full percentage point since April 2011, from 55.6 percent to 54.8 percent.
Employment participation remains low for the total population, about 58 percent. That’s down from the most recent high of 64 percent back in 2000, and basically where it was back in the early 1980s. Back then, the dip was a sudden fall followed by a fairly quick recovery. Today, participation has flattened over the past few years, after plummeting from 62 percent beginning in summer 2008.