The state of the union for black workers: Myths and facts

As President Trump prepares to deliver his State of the Union address, here are three charts that show why the economy is still not “working great” for all black workers in America.


Myth: The black unemployment rate is at an all-time low, and that means the economy is “working great” for all black workers.

Reality: Too many black workers are still out of work—black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers.


Even with a historically low average annual black unemployment rate of 6.1% in 2019, black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers overall and are more likely to be unemployed than white workers at every education level. Only black workers with some college or more education have an unemployment rate lower than the overall unemployment rate of white workers.

Black workers are more likely to be unemployed than white workers at every education level: Unemployment rates by race and education, 2019

Education Black White, non-Hispanic
All 6.1% 3.0%
Less than high school 14.7% 8.3% 
High school 8.3% 3.9% 
Some college 4.9% 2.9% 
College 3.4% 2.2% 
Advanced 2.3% 1.7%
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Notes: Estimates are based on a 12-month average (January 2019–December 2019). “Black” includes blacks of Hispanic ethnicity. Whites are non-Hispanic.

Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey basic monthly microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau; updated with Jan.–Dec. 2019 data from Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities in Employment Outcomes (EPI, 2019)

EPI analysis of Current Population Survey basic monthly microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau. Updated with Jan.–Dec. 2019 data from Figure A in Jhacova Williams and Valerie Wilson, Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities in Employment Outcomes, Economic Policy Institute, August 2019.

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.


Myth: If black workers had better skills, they would have better employment outcomes.

Reality: Having a college degree doesn’t guarantee a college-level job, especially for black workers.


It is true that workers with higher levels of education have better employment outcomes. But in today’s economy getting a college degree doesn’t provide the universal boost that it used to. We have a high underemployment rate—a high share of college graduates who are working in jobs that do not require a college degree. And as the chart shows, black college graduates are more likely than white college graduates to be employed in occupations that do not require a college degree.

Black college graduates are more likely than white college graduates to be underemployed when it comes to their skills: Share of workers with a college degree who are not employed in a college occupation, by race, 2019

Race/ethnicity Rate
Black 39.4%
White non-Hispanic 30.9%
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Adapted from Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities in Employment Outcomes, Economic Policy Institute, 2019.

Source: EPI analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data

Estimates are based on a 12-month average (July 2018–June 2019). “Black” includes blacks of Hispanic ethnicity. Whites are non-Hispanic. College graduates include those with a bachelor’s degree or more education. For how "college occupation" is defined, see the methodology in Jhacova Williams and Valerie Wilson, Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities in Employment Outcomes, Economic Policy Institute, August 2019

Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey basic monthly microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau. Adapted from Figures B and C in Jhacova Williams and Valerie Wilson, Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities in Employment Outcomes, Economic Policy Institute, August 2019.

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.


Myth: The strong economy and historically low unemployment must mean historically strong wage growth among black workers, and especially among highly educated black workers.

Reality: Wages for black college graduates have actually fallen in the current recovery.


In a recovery, as the unemployment rates falls, you expect wages to grow. But in that respect this current recovery significantly lags the recovery of the late 1990s. Both recoveries have had similar declines in the unemployment rate, but wages today have not grown nearly as fast or as evenly across race and gender as they did during the late 1990s. Today, workers with bachelor’s degrees are not seeing nearly the level of wage growth that this group saw in the late 1990s. In fact, wages fell for black college graduates between 2015 and 2019, even as unemployment rates were falling significantly.

Wage growth was stronger among workers with bachelor’s degrees in the late 1990s than during the current expansion: Real average wage growth, workers with bachelor’s degrees, 1996–2000 and 2015–2019

Demographic 1996–2000 2015–2019
Men 10.9% 7.8%
Women 9.8% 3.0%
White 10.6% 6.6%
Black 11.5% -0.3%

 

ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Adapted from Wage Growth Is Weak for a Tight Labor Market—and the Pace of Wage Growth Is Uneven Across Race and Gender, Economic Policy Institute, 2019.

Source: EPI analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data

 

In order to include data from the first half of 2019, all years refer to the 12-month period ending in June. Sample includes workers with a bachelor’s degree only.

Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey basic monthly microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau. Adapted from Figure B in Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, Wage Growth is Weak for a Tight Labor Market—and the Pace of Wage Growth is Uneven Across Race and Gender, Economic Policy Institute, August 2019.

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.