Has Education Paid Off for Black Workers?

In a recent report, John Schmitt and I demonstrated that despite large increases over the last three decades in educational attainment, black workers are less likely to be in a “good job” than they were three decades ago. We define a good job as one with good pay, health insurance, and a retirement plan. Even with our limited definition of a good job, this disheartening pattern holds true for both black men and black women.

Between 1979 and 2011, the share of black men with a high school degree or less fell almost by half (from 72.6 percent to 43.4 percent), and the share with a college degree nearly tripled (from 8.1 percent to 23.4 percent). Despite this massive improvement at both ends of the education spectrum, black men overall and at every education level – less than high school, high school, some college but short of a four-year degree, and at least a four-year degree – are less likely to be in a good job today than three decades ago.

Over this same time period, black women have made even more educational progress. Between 1979 and 2011, the share of black women with no more than a high school degree fell from about two-thirds (66.7 percent) to about one third (34.9 percent), and the share with at least a four-year degree more than doubled (from 12.9 percent to 28.5 percent). As a result, in 2011, a higher share of black women had a college degree than black men. However, similar to black men, black women were less likely to be a good job in 2011 than in 1979 at every education level.

Although there were large improvements in educational attainment for black women and black men, only black women experienced increases in good jobs. Because the trend lines for black women and black men have moved in opposite directions, the gender gap shrank steadily since 1979. The good news is that black women have continued to improve their standing in the labor market. However, in every year since 1979, and at every education level, black women remained less likely to be in a good job than black men.

These substantial gains in education tell us that a lack of “human capital” does not appear to be causing the difficulties black workers face in the labor market. Instead, one cause of these difficulties is the deterioration in the bargaining power of low- and middle-wage workers, which includes a disproportionate amount of black workers. Decades of long-term economic trends – like a fall in the value of the minimum wage, decreased unionization, and the privatization of local and state functions – have taken away the bargaining power of workers, and had a disproportionate effect on blacks workers. Another factor in the lack of payoff for black workers is ongoing labor-market discrimination. In particular, black women must overcome a nasty form of double discrimination, which includes the need for pay equity, affordable childcare, and protection from sexual harassment at work on top ofunfair practices based on race.

Black workers have made significant and often overlooked investments in education in the last three decades. The lack of growth in good jobs answers the main question of the report, has education paid off for black workers as a group? Short Answer: It has not.

This post originally appeared on Girl W/ Pen.

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