The Black-White Unemployment Gap
Black workers in state 3.5 times more likely to be unemployed.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has hit a record low and is being cited by state policymakers as evidence of Wisconsin’s strong economy. But although the unemployment rate for white workers is strikingly low, black workers in the state still face an unemployment rate higher than the rate experienced by white workers at the peak of the Great Recession.
The unemployment rate describes the share of workers who are looking for a job and can’t find one. In Wisconsin, the unemployment rate fell to 2.9% for February, the lowest monthly level in state history. Governor Scott Walker called Wisconsin’s low unemployment rate “a big win for Wisconsin” and tweeted, “Future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”
But not all workers are sharing in that big win. The unemployment rate for black workers in Wisconsin is three and a half times as high as the rate for white workers. Black workers in Wisconsin faced an unemployment rate of 9.6% in 2017, compared to 2.6% for white workers, a difference of more than six percentage points.
The difference between unemployment rates for white and black workers in Wisconsin means that black job seekers had a significantly harder time finding a job in 2017 than white workers did when their unemployment rate peaked at 7.5% in 2010. In effect, the recession is still continuing for black workers. In fact, you have to go back 34 years to 1983 to find a time the unemployment rate for white workers in Wisconsin was as high as the black workers’ rate in 2017.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate for white workers closely tracks the national average, a trend that calls into question how much credit state policymakers should be taking for bringing about the low overall unemployment rate. But Wisconsin’s jobless rate for black workers exceeds the national average by a considerable amount: 9.3% of black job seekers in Wisconsin could not find a job, compared to a national average of 7.5% for black workers. In 2017, Wisconsin’s black unemployment rate was fifth highest among the states (out of 29 states with information), meaning that only four states had higher black jobless rates.
The black-white unemployment gap exists even after controlling for factors like education, experience, and age – pointing to systemic denial of opportunity for black workers. As the New York Times noted:
“[A] hard truth is that even when the economy picks up and employers are on a hiring binge, black people have a harder time getting jobs and are paid less than similarly situated white workers. That is exactly what happened from 1996 to 2000, the last genuinely hot job market, and it points clearly to racial discrimination, not just in hiring, but in a range of public policies that disproportionately affect black people. These include the dearth and high cost of child care, which harms single mothers the most; poor public transportation in many rural and suburban areas, which makes keeping a job difficult; and mass incarceration of black men and the barriers to employment that go with it.”
The unemployment rate gives only a partial picture of how workers are faring in an economy, as it doesn’t measure other important factors like labor force participation or wage growth, neither of which is at particularly promising levels for Wisconsin workers. Even given those caveats, Wisconsin’s overall low unemployment rate is a favorable sign that many job seekers are successful at finding employment – but the gap between black and white unemployment rates tells us that not all workers in Wisconsin are offered the same opportunity for success. Glossing over that fact will make it harder to tackle structural barriers to employment and ensure workers of all races have bright futures.