Economics

Black Unemployment Is at an All-Time Low, But ...

The employment-population ratio among black Americans (and other groups) still isn’t setting any records.

Lower doesn't mean perfect.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The unemployment rate among black Americans fell to 6.6 percent in April, according to today’s jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — the lowest such rate on record.

The record in this case only goes back to 1972, and the overall unemployment rate (available back to 1948) was lower in the late 1960s and early 1950s than it is now. But the gap between the black unemployment rate and the overall rate has been shrinking, so 6.6 percent may well be the lowest rate ever for black people.

Black Unemployment Is at an All-Time Low

Unemployment rate, civilian population 16 and older, seasonally adjusted

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Now, 6.6 percent is still an anomalously high unemployment rate compared to every other major racial and ethic group in the U.S. The rate in April was 4.8 percent for Hispanics, 3.6 percent for whites and 2.7 percent for Asian-Americans. Still, it’s progress, and it’s worth celebrating, as President Donald Trump did in characteristic fashion earlier this year:

Saying that black unemployment is this low “because of my policies” may seem a bit much, given the rate has simply kept falling at about the same rate that it had for the six years before Trump was elected. Still, it has kept falling, which is important. Just as recessions have been worse (in terms of the unemployment rate rise) for blacks than for everybody else, really long expansions appear to be comparatively better for blacks as they bring people into the workforce who had been struggling to gain a foothold. So prolonging the recovery seems to be especially good for black people, and I think it’s fair to say that the policies of this administration and Congress have on balance been aimed at prolonging the expansion (with the likely side effect of a future fiscal crunch, but whatever). 1 So I will not begrudge the president a little credit.

Still, back before he was elected in November 2016, Trump repeatedly argued that the unemployment rate was a flawed measure because it ignored those who had stopped looking for work. He had a point. Only those who tell government survey takers that they’ve looked for a job in the past four weeks are counted as unemployed, and the percentage of Americans of working age who neither have jobs nor are actively looking for them has risen a lot over the past couple of decades. Another, possibly better way to gauge the health of the labor market over time, then, is to look at the employment-population ratio for those ages 25 through 54, what is known as prime working age.

The data series in this case only go back to 1994, and they’re not seasonally adjusted, so the lines jump around a bit. But the story they tell is still pretty clear: These aren’t the best of labor-market times for blacks, or for anybody else.

Black Employment Isn't at an All-Time High

Employment-population ratio,* ages 25 through 54, not seasonally adjusted

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

*As a percentage of civilian, non-institutional population

As with the unemployment rate, though, blacks’ prime-age employment disadvantage in relation to the rest of the population does seem to be shrinking over time. Here’s the difference between the prime-age employment-population ratios for whites and blacks, smoothed with a 12-month moving average to cut out the month-to-month noise:

The Black-White Employment Gap Is Shrinking (But Still Big)

Difference in prime-age employment-population ratio, moving 12-month average

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The gap is at an all-time low, then, with the caveats that “all-time” only goes back to 1994 and that 5 percentage points is still a lot. Why has it been shrinking? One obvious explanation that springs to mind is that the white employment-population ratio has been weighed down by the economic struggles of rural America; where whites’ share of the population is well above the national average, blacks’ share is well below it; and labor-force participation is now markedly lower than in urban areas. So it’s not so much that labor-market conditions are especially great these days for black people as that they continue to be especially bad for rural whites. Or maybe that’s too negative a way to look at it. Black Americans really have been making employment gains in recent years — and they’ll probably keep making them as long as this expansion continues. Which is one more reason to root for it to keep going.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. One could of course argue that the administration's immigration policies are helping blacks by keeping job rivals out of the country, or that its trade policies are either hurting or helping blacks by hurting or helping domestic industries, but I think the evidence to back up any such statements is at this point still scant.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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