What Held Blacks Back?

Educational achievement is supposed to provide greater rewards in the workplace. Yet, notes economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute in a new study, despite educational progress by blacks in the 1980s, the gap between their wages and those of whites at all education levels (except high school dropouts) widened during the decade--suggesting that job discrimination may actually have increased.

Blacks' educational gains have been significant. Whereas the median years of schooling of black men and women were about two years less than those of whites in 1970, for example, by 1990 the gap was down to just 0.2 to 0.3 years. And while high school dropout rates of blacks and whites of both sexes declined in the 1980s, they fell far more sharply among blacks, almost eliminating the gap between black and white males.

Similarly, nationwide tests of 17-year-olds in reading and math skills show blacks gaining considerable ground on whites between 1975 and 1990 (chart). And the gaps between black and white SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores in math and verbal ability narrowed by more than 20% from 1976 to 1990. According to a Rand Corp. study, rising parental education levels and fewer children per household helped black youths move ahead despite increases in poverty and single-parent families.

Unfortunately, such progress hasn't produced commensurate economic gains. After narrowing the hourly wage gap during the 1970s, for example, blacks generally lost ground relative to whites in the 1980s (chart). The decline occurred among both younger and older adults, and it was particularly pronounced among college-educated black men. Indeed, Bernstein argues that drops in both college aid for low-income students and in the relative rewards of a college education explain why the percentage of young black adults with college degrees stopped rising in the 1980s.

Why haven't blacks' educational gains paid off? Bernstein thinks blacks have been especially vulnerable to such trends as the shift to white-collar jobs, declining unionization, and widening wage inequality that favors the most highly educated workers. And though the black-white male wage gap may have recently started shrinking again, he also observes that young black males continue to leave the labor force--suggesting that racial discrimination still weighs heavily on their job prospects.

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