Blacks Getting Educated, Then Forgotten

Janelle JonesJanelle Jones and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research have written a number of papers recently on how African Americans are doing in the modern American economy. I was expecting bad news, but it is even worse than I had thought. The main report (in PDF form) is Has Education Paid Off for Black Workers? I recommend at least reading the executive summary, but I’ll give you an idea of what we’re talking about here.

As a group, African Americans have improved themselves in a big way. Between 1979 and 2011, the number of black men with a high school degree or less fell dramatically from 72% to 43%. (In 1979, the high school dropout rate was 1-3; now it is 1-20.) Similarly, the number of black men with a college degree soared from 8% to over 23%. So much for the Bill O’Reilly line about the disintegration of African American subculture. (It seems what has disintegrated is the ability of conservative commentators to keep up to date with the facts.) But what do these black men have to show for all their hard work? Less than nothing.

No group of black college educated men was more likely to have good jobs in 2011 than it was in 1979. A “good job” is one that pays at least $19 per hour and offers medical and retirement plans. College educated black men younger than 35 have seen their chances of a good job reduced from 19.7% to 13.4%. Similarly, those between the ages of 35 and 54 have seen their chances reduced from 33.3% to 27.2%. And those over 55 have gone from 29.9% to 27.1%. The same dynamic is at work for black women, but their educational achievement has been greater and their job advancement less bad. However, black women are still far less likely to have a good job than than black men.

As Janelle Jones puts it, “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.” In an interview on Bloomberg TV she noted that in this same time, GDP per person has increased 70%. And that gets to the heart of what is going on here.

During this period—basically from the Reagan Revolution onward—economic growth has not been shared with the workforce. There are various historical and sociological forces[1] that placed African Americans behind at the start. So they end up seeing even fewer fruits of productivity gains than whites, who themselves are being left behind.

As surprising as the results of this work were, I was stunned by one thing: according to Jones & Schmitt’s model, unionization is more important than education in providing better jobs for African American workers. Although looking at it now, it seems obvious. As more and more people become better educated, their individual value in the labor market goes down. So the David Brookses and George Willses of the world are just spouting happy talk that favors the rich. The only way to make improvements for workers is for them to have something approaching equal power to the capital owners. And the only way I know to do that is to organize.

Here is Janelle Jones on Bloomberg TV:

[1] By “sociological forces” I am not pitching the tired canard of black cultural dysfunction. What I mean is the status of blacks as outsiders in American culture.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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