Black women are gaining ground in the labor market but still face unique barriers

An employee works at the BMW manufacturing plant in Greer, South Carolina, October 19, 2022.
Bob Strong | Reuters

A decrease in the unemployment rate of Black women is heartening, but labor experts warn that the trend shouldn’t create any false notions about equity in the workforce.

The unemployment rate for the entire Black population has avoided ticking up since August, coming in at 5.4% in January, according to seasonally adjusted data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday.

January’s drop in Black unemployment was propelled by gains made by Black women, whose unemployment rate excluding teenagers dropped to 4.7% in January from 5.5% in December. Black men, by comparison, saw unemployment tick up to 5.3% in January from 5.1% in December.

Both the rate of unemployment for all Black people and for women specifically are at their lowest levels in more than a year. The last time the Black unemployment rate was below 5.5% was in September 2019, while Black women last had a sub-5% unemployment rate in November 2021.

The unemployment rates of white, Asian and Hispanic/Latino workers all increased from December to January. Still, Black workers have the highest unemployment rate when compared with white, Asian and Hispanic/Latino workers.

“Sometimes when folks see improvement, they see it as positive, but the disparities are still there,” said Kate Bahn, director of labor market policy and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “Convergence is good, but it’s still not equal.”

Bahn said the relatively higher rate can be attributed specifically to anti-Black racism. She pointed to the discrimination Black people face in hiring and the increased likelihood of layoffs Black workers experience as two examples. While a tight labor market can help mitigate some of these challenges for Black workers, policy changes would be required to create a more just labor field, she said.

Black women had bigger gains in employment-to-population ratios, which show the number of people employed as a share of the broader population. While Black men saw a 0.2 percentage point gain between December and January, Black women added 1.1 percentage points.

Both groups also reported an increase in the total number of active workers.

Valerie Wilson, the director of a program focused on race, ethnicity and the economy at the Economic Policy Institute, said January can be an especially difficult month to draw trends from because population data changes with the new year.

Looking at actual numbers, there are more unemployed Black women, even though the percentage unemployed within the same population is down.

She said the gains in employment could be attributed at least in part to the tightness of the overall labor market. The unemployment rate came in under analysts’ expectations at 3.4% for January, the lowest since May 1969.

“When you get to those really low rates of unemployment, we tend to start seeing more changes among groups that had higher rates of unemployment,” Wilson said. “If you’re still currently unemployed, you’re still looking for a job, then you’re more likely to be a person to fill a new opening.”

And just because Black women, and Black people as a whole, are finding employment at increasing rates, it doesn’t always mean the newly employed are better off. She pointed to the fact that the rate of wage growth is showing signs of slowing. In addition, the hospitality and leisure sector — which Wilson said can typically pay less than other industries — added the most jobs this month.

“It really depends on how you measure or want to define better off or being hurt,” Wilson said. “There are more jobs available for those who want to find employment. That doesn’t necessarily say anything on its own about the quality of those jobs.”

“I don’t think any job is better than no job at all,” she added, “but the fact that you can find employment is at least a marginal improvement over not having employment.”


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