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Reflecting on Full Employment, 50 Years After the March on Washington


As the nation prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington this week, CBPP Senior Fellow Jared Bernstein reflected on the job market’s critical role in advancing economic progress among African-Americans.

Here’s an excerpt from his recent blog post:

Remember, it was called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” … And when he was taken from us, Dr. King was leading the “Poor People’s Campaign,” organized around the need for jobs, health care, and housing.

The last time this economy was operating with truly tight labor markets, back in the latter 1990s, I was quite struck by the gains made by African-Americans, both in absolute terms and relative to whites.  Here’s just a small table, the work of a few minutes, which makes the case on a number of key economic variables.

  • Between 1993 and 2000, the national unemployment rate fell from 6.9 percent to 4 percent, a decline of about 3 percentage points.  But African-American unemployment fell 5.4 percentage points, about twice the decline of white unemployment.
  • Employment rates — the share of the working-age population with a job — went up 5.5 points for blacks and 2.2 for whites.
  • The poverty rates of black families with kids fell a whopping 14 percentage points over those years, close to four times the 4-point decline for white families.  It’s also true that 2000 marked an all-time low in the poverty rates for blacks.
  • The ratio of black median income to that of whites rose almost 9 percentage points to its highest level on record going back to 1947.

These statistics focus on the relative trends, but it is of course disarmingly clear that the levels in the table reveal great racial disparities.  Even with the noted gains, black family poverty was many multiples of the rate for whites.  Even at its peak, the income ratio was below two-thirds.

But you’ll never get to the levels you desire without the trends moving in the right directions, and for that to happen, we need to get back to full employment.

Click here to read the full post.