Black men are integral to Black families, neighborhoods, and communities. But they suffer from joblessness at rates higher than other men. There are about one million more employed Black women than employed Black men. Among other ethnic and racial groups in the United States, there are substantially more employed men than employed women.
As documented by a November 2022 YouGov survey commissioned for this report, the vast majority of Black women are very or extremely concerned about Black men’s joblessness, and they want to see more jobs in Black communities for Black people. Most Black women also believe that increasing Black men’s job opportunities would increase the stability of Black couples and reduce crime.
For over two decades, there have been about a million more employed Black women than employed Black men in the US (Figure 1).
As illustrated in Figure 2, this is a unique situation—in each of four other major ethnic and racial groups, there are more employed men than employed women.
Among Latinos, there have been 143 employed men for every 100 employed women on average annually since 2000. There are three major reasons for this very male-biased sex ratio 1 among employed Latinos: Latino men are more likely to be employed than other groups of men; Latino women are less likely to be employed than other women, and the overall Latino sex ratio is slightly male-biased.2
Among Black adults since 2000, there has been an average of 87 employed Black men for every 100 employed Black women each year, even though Black men have a somewhat higher employment rate than Black women. There are two major reasons for this. First, the overall Black sex ratio is very female-biased—among non-elderly, non-institutionalized Black adults, there have been about 85 men for every 100 women since 2000. Second, Black men are much more likely to be excluded from employment than other men. As previously documented by CEPR, the employment rate for prime-age (25- to 54-year-old) Black men tends to be over 10 percentage points lower than for other men.3 If prime-age Black men had the same employment rate as prime-age White men, about 800,000 more Black men would have been employed on average each year from 2000 to 2022.4
It is important to note that Black women’s employment is not “too high” and that a male-biased employment ratio is not inherently preferable to a female-biased one. If the unemployment rate for Black women were as low as it is for White women, more Black women would be employed.
Labor force participation has been declining among prime working-age men of all races and ethnicities since the mid-1950s. This decline has been particularly sharp for Black men, and men with a high school degree or less. As noted by economists Patrick Bayer and Kerwin Kofi Charles, the rate of joblessness for prime-age Black men doubled from 1960 to 2007–2014.5 Similarly, sociologists John Clegg and Adaner Usmani find the rate of joblessness for less-educated, urban Black men ages 18 to 50 more than doubled from 1960 to 2018 6 Employment opportunities for most Black men are much worse today than they were after World War II before de-industrialization took hold and devastated Black employment.
To better understand Black women’s perspectives on Black men’s high rate of joblessness, CEPR commissioned YouGov to conduct a nationally representative survey of 500 Black women. The survey was fielded between November 7 and November 16, 2022.
Figure 3 shows that Black women are quite concerned about joblessness among Black men. Four out of every five Black women are extremely concerned (45 percent) or very concerned (35 percent) about the issue. Another 13 percent are somewhat concerned about the issue.
The question in figure 3 summarizes Black women’s level of concern about Black men’s joblessness as a general social issue. The next three figures summarize the extent to which Black women are concerned about the job security of specific Black men, the ones in their own families. Although the survey was conducted during a period of low unemployment nationally, a majority of Black mothers, with sons able to work, expressed worry about their sons finding and keeping jobs. Nearly half (46 percent) of Black mothers were extremely (34 percent) or moderately (12 percent) worried about their sons being able to find employment (Figure 4). Another 17 percent of Black mothers are somewhat (9 percent) or slightly (8 percent) worried.
Black women are also concerned about their brothers finding employment. Among Black women with brothers able to work, nearly two-fifths (39 percent) are extremely (24 percent) or moderately (16 percent) worried (Figure 5). Just over one in five ( 22 percent) are somewhat (10 percent) or slightly (12 percent) worried.
Among Black women with Black husbands, boyfriends, or male partners, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) are worried about their being able to find work (Figure 6). A little more than a third (37 percent) are extremely (26 percent) or moderately (11 percent) worried. About a quarter (27 percent) are somewhat (9 percent) or slightly (17 percent) worried.
Black women’s concerns are well-founded. Looking back over the last several decades, Black men’s unemployment rate is typically about twice White men’s unemployment rate.7 Additionally, many jobless Black men who are able and willing to work are not captured by the official measure of unemployment, which is limited to people who have actively looked for work in the last four weeks. Indeed, it is often the case that most non-institutionalized jobless Black men who are able and willing to work are not counted as unemployed. As recently documented in a CEPR report, if Black men under age 55 had the same unemployment rate as White men in 2022, about 300,000 fewer Black men would be counted as “unemployed” in the official statistics. If Black men in this age range had the same employment rate as White men, about 1 million fewer Black men would be jobless.8 Although these Black men are missing in the official unemployment-rate statistics, Black women know them because they are their sons, brothers, and partners.
Official employment statistics also do not include the roughly 365,000 Black men serving sentences in state and federal prisons or those living in other institutions.9 When these men are released from prison, it will be very difficult for them to find work because they are formerly incarcerated Black men.10 A 2018 study by the Prison Policy Institute estimates that formerly imprisoned Black women and Black men face steep “prison penalties” when it comes to finding employment after their release—compared to their overall unemployment rate, Black women and men are about 5 to 7 times as likely to be unemployed as other Black men and women. The Black women in formerly incarcerated Black men’s lives have good reason to worry about their employment prospects.
Black women are likely to be aware that even if a Black person has a job this year, they are not guaranteed to have one next year. Black workers tend to be the first fired as the economy weakens.11 This awareness could be another reason for Black women to worry about the employment situation of the Black men in their lives even if the men are currently employed.
Because of the societal problem of joblessness for both Black men and Black women, it is not surprising that more than four-fifths of Black women strongly agree (55 percent) or agree (29 percent) that “[t]here needs to be more jobs in Black communities available to Black people” (Figure 7). While many analysts looking at national statistics on unemployment worry that the US labor market is too hot, it is still, at best, lukewarm for Black people.12 In short, the current Black unemployment rate would be considered high if it were the White unemployment rate, and the official Black unemployment rate does not capture most of the joblessness that afflicts Black communities in the United States. Black women are well aware of this “hidden” joblessness in their families, neighborhoods, and communities.
The results of YouGov’s survey of Black women suggest that even in the current strong economy, Black women are burdened by worry about the job market prospects of loved ones. But there are additional burdens that the high rate of joblessness among Black men places on Black women and Black communities.
Joblessness among Black men means a greater financial burden on Black women than if Black men were employed at rates similar to other men. The high rate of joblessness means that more Black men with children are unable to provide financial support for their children.13 (But it is also important to note that children need both financial and emotional support and Black men’s contributions to the latter are too often underappreciated).14 Black people often provide economic support to relatives.15 This means that more Black women are likely to be providing financial support to adult Black sons, brothers, and other male relatives than would be the case if Black men’s employment rate was the same as the rate for other groups of men.16
The high rate of joblessness for Black men means that there is more poverty among Black families, in Black neighborhoods, and in Black communities. This joblessness collectively costs Black communities over $30 billion a year.17 Black communities would be more economically vibrant with an additional $30 billion of income each year.
Economist Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights have studied intergenerational income mobility by race and sex. They found that the low rate of upward mobility for African Americans is driven solely by the poor outcomes of Black men.18 As Chetty puts it “addressing the unique challenges faced by black men may ultimately raise the incomes of both black men and women.”19 Improving Black men’s employment rate is an important element of any strategy to increase wealth and income in the Black families and communities that millions of Black women and girls live in.
High rates of Black male joblessness affect the quality of life in Black communities. Males are more likely to be involved in street crime,20 and street crime has been shown to be caused, in part, by labor market disadvantages.21 For these reasons, the high rate of male joblessness in poor Black communities contributes to high rates of street crime in these communities. The reductions in poverty and economic inequality that would result from increasing Black men’s employment would likely lead to reductions in crime in Black communities. A majority of Black women recognize this relationship, with two-thirds of Black women strongly agreeing (41 percent) or agreeing (25 percent) that “Black communities would have less crime if more Black men had jobs” (Figure 8).
Conservative analysts regularly argue that if more Black people were married, more Black people would be better off economically.22 They repeat this claim while, apparently, ignoring the body of research indicating that they have cause and effect backward. The research indicates that if more Black people were better off economically in the first place then more Black people would marry.
Black people desire to marry at rates similar to people of other races. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that about 74 percent of Black men said that it was very or somewhat important to them personally to be married. For White men, the rate was 79 percent.23 When one considers the margin of error, these responses are statistically the same.24 Black people, however, have a marriage rate that is much lower than the White rate.25
While Black people have a similar desire to marry as other groups, they are less likely to find themselves in the demographic and economic conditions that would enable them to fulfill their desires, in large part because of racial discrimination.26 Sociologists Kristen Harknett and Sara McLanahan conclude that African Americans “place a high value on marriage,” but “an undersupply of employed African American men can explain a large portion of the racial and ethnic differences in marriage.”27 According to sociologists Pamela Smock and her colleagues, “Quantitative studies in demography, sociology, and economics have generally demonstrated that . . . [p]eople with higher education and better economic prospects are more likely to become married, to stay married, and to have children within marriage.”28 Public policy professor Dawne M. Mouzon concludes that “those who want to boost marriage rates among blacks should focus on improving job opportunities and education for black men.”29
The majority of Black women express some support for this viewpoint. Three-fifths (61 percent) of Black women expect that Black marriage rates would increase a lot (22 percent) or increase a little (39 percent) if more Black men were employed. Interestingly, married Black women are more likely to see Black men’s employment as a factor influencing marriage rates. Figure 9 shows that while a majority of both married and never married Black women think an increase in Black men’s employment would contribute to an increase in marriage rates, married Black women are more likely to hold this view (71 percent for married Black women versus 55 percent for never-married Black women). It is possible that the experience of being in a committed relationship helps Black women better appreciate the importance of having an employed partner. For many couples, money is a major source of conflict in their relationship.30
Given these sentiments, it is not surprising that nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of Black women strongly agree (45 percent) or agree (34 percent) that Black women and girls are better off if more Black men in their families and communities are working (Figure 10). Any comprehensive approach to help Black families, neighborhoods, and communities must have policies to address the uniquely low employment rate of Black men
There are multiple causes of the crisis of joblessness facing Black men. Black men’s declining employment rate is part of the broad trend of declining employment for men without college degrees.31 These men have been hurt by US trade policies that contributed to the decline in manufacturing jobs in the US.32 Black men are more likely to lack college degrees than White men, so relatively more Black men have been affected by this decline. Employment in the manufacturing sector is disproportionately male, and Black men, even more so than White men, relied on these jobs.33 Economist Robert Scott and his colleagues estimate that Black workers lost over 600,000 good manufacturing jobs from 1998 to 2020 as a result of the country’s “botched policy responses to globalization.”34
Anti-Black discrimination in the labor market is another factor leading to lower employment for Black men. When comparing Black and White people with equivalent job applications or resumes with stereotypically “Black” and “White” names, researchers consistently find that employers are more favorable to candidates who are White or to resumes with “White” names.35
This type of anti-Black discrimination in the labor market interacts with mass incarceration to make it more difficult for many Black men to find work. Employers generally prefer to hire individuals without criminal records.36 After many decades of a relatively stable incarceration rate, the incarceration rate began to increase rapidly in the mid-1970s. The United States went from having an average incarceration rate for a rich, Western country to having the highest incarceration rate in the world, higher than poorer and more economically unequal countries and higher than more autocratic countries.37 This change in incarceration policies falls heavily on Black men. In 1980, Black men’s incarceration rate was a little over 1,000 per 100,000.38 By 2000, it was over 3,000 per 100,000. Black men’s incarceration rate in 2000 was eight times the rate for White males and 17 times the rate for Black women.39
Most people in prison eventually are released. As a result of mass incarceration, there are many Black men who were formerly incarcerated. These men can encounter employment discrimination for both being Black and for having a criminal record. Research suggests that Black men with a criminal record are treated worse by employers than White men with a criminal record.40 Discrimination continues to limit Black men’s employment opportunities.
A commonly proposed solution to the poor labor market outcomes for Black people is education and training. While useful, the extent to which education counteracts anti-Black discrimination in the labor market is limited. Black men’s unemployment rate does decrease with increasing educational attainment. Thus, increasing Black men’s educational attainment should help to improve their labor market situation. But as Figure 11 shows, Black men’s unemployment rate is substantially higher than for White and Latino men at every level of educational attainment. Even if Black men had the exact same educational profile as White men, their unemployment rate would still be much higher than White men’s. In fact, Black men need to obtain a bachelor’s degree to have a greater likelihood of finding employment than a White male high school dropout. Additionally, the studies discussed above testing employers’ responses to Black and White job applicants and stereotypical “Black” and “White” names on resumes all compare individuals with equivalent educational attainment and skills. Discrimination is more powerful in shaping Black men’s employment outcomes than education and training.
Just as there are multiple factors causing the low employment rate for Black men, there are multiple policy solutions. The employment rate for both Black men and women is highest in tight labor markets. The US needs macroeconomic policies that help produce sustained periods of low unemployment and pull long-discouraged workers back into the labor market. To accomplish this goal, the Federal Reserve should be conservative about raising interest rates, and the federal government should continue to make public investments that produce jobs and productivity growth.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 made historic federal investments in physical infrastructure, including transportation, climate, and clean energy infrastructure. To ensure that these investments help narrow employment gaps between Black and White workers, they must be implemented in ways that take racial equity into account. While these new investments are substantial, they only meet part of our existing physical infrastructure needs and do little to address long-standing deficits in our care infrastructure. Substantial new investments are still needed and should be done in ways that increase employment opportunities and security for Black men and women.
While a low national unemployment rate is helpful to Black communities, it still leaves them with a relatively large number of non-elderly people without good jobs. To address this problem, the US needs massive job creation efforts specifically targeted to communities with persistently low rates of employment. This can be done with targeted subsidized employment programs.41 A meta-analysis of 102 randomized control trials (the gold standard for scientific research) of worker-centered employment policies concludes that subsidized employment programs have the strongest positive effect on individuals’ employment and earnings. Subsidized employment programs were more effective than support for micro-entrepreneurs, vocational training, and job-search assistance.42 Targeting subsidized employment programs to low-employment communities would help lift Black men’s employment rate up to that of White men, while also addressing the long-term decline in working-class men’s labor force participation across races and ethnicities.
Anti-Black discrimination in employment is a serious problem as discussed above. The federal, state and local governments need to find ways to enforce anti-discrimination laws more. They also need to determine if additional policies are needed to ensure that there is equal opportunity for all in the labor market.
While the disproportionately male manufacturing sector has been in decline, several female-dominated occupations have been growing. These include many occupations in what Richard Reeves, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, calls the “HEAL”—health, education, administration, and literacy—sector. HEAL workers include nurses, home health aides, teachers, childcare administrators, social workers, and editors. Today, there are more HEAL jobs than STEM jobs, and HEAL jobs have a strong growth rate. Reeves calls for a concerted effort to encourage men to obtain HEAL jobs.43 An increase in the number of men in HEAL occupations should also help to increase Black men’s employment rate.
A major challenge for bringing men into HEAL occupations is the fact that many HEAL jobs are “bad jobs” with low wages and few benefits. Regardless of whether men’s participation in these jobs increases, these jobs need to be turned into “good jobs.” It is unlikely that men’s share in these occupations will increase without improvements in the quality of these jobs. It is now quite clear that the long-term decline in wages for men with only a high school or less has driven much of the decline in their labor force participation.44
As part of anti-discrimination efforts, there should be policies to push the US incarceration rate back in line with the low incarceration rates of all other wealthy Western countries. As mentioned above, Black men’s incarceration rate was eight times the rate for White men in 2000 and 17 times the rate for Black women. The good news is that in recent years there has been a decline in incarceration rates.45 To continue this positive trend, our criminal justice policies must prioritize fairness and rehabilitation.
In addition to addressing racial discrimination in the criminal legal system, reducing Black men’s incarceration rate will also require reducing the likelihood that Black men engage in street crime. The recent decline in incarceration rates has been partially the result of declining street crime rates,46 but Black men’s involvement in street crime is still higher than it should be. (This was the case even before the recent increase in street crime).47
Increasing Black men’s employment via subsidized jobs would help to reduce street crime. Subsidized employment has been proven to be helpful in reducing criminal recidivism.48 In addition to this and other policies already mentioned, continuing to improve Black boys’ educational outcomes, including by making more equitable investments in education, would help reduce street crime. The vast majority of incarcerated black men did not finish high school.49 While high school graduation rates have increased across races and ethnicities, Black men’s high school graduation rate is still too low.
Finally, having more Black men in HEAL occupations may help keep more young Black men on a positive path. Black boys would benefit from having more encounters with Black men as teachers.50 In recent rigorous research, economist Seth Gershenson and his colleagues find that increases in the share of Black teachers (whether men or women) increase the odds that young Black men finish high school. They also find that increases in the share of Black male teachers increase college intent among young Black men.51 Just as women role models can have positive effects on young women,52 there may be additional role-model effects from having Black male youth have positive engagement with Black men in HEAL occupations. For example, Chetty found that greater rates of father presence at the neighborhood level is associated with better outcomes for black boys.53 These policies are likely to create a positive synergy that reduces Black men’s incarceration rate by reducing the likelihood that Black men engage in street crime. Lowering Black men’s incarceration rate would improve their employment prospects.
This list of solutions is not comprehensive, but it includes some key policies that would increase Black men’s employment. Taken together these policies will create a virtuous cycle leading to more positive outcomes for not just Black men and boys, but also for Black families, neighborhoods, and communities. These policies would also have benefits for Black women, and benefits for men and women of other races. Ultimately, the entire nation will benefit.
If one wants to help Black boys, helping Black women is essential because nearly all Black boys are being raised solely by or in partnership with Black women. But it is also important to recognize that helping Black men and boys will have positive effects on Black women and girls. This is simply because Black men and boys are part of Black families, neighborhoods, and communities. If Black men and boys are doing poorly, then Black families, neighborhoods, and communities are also going to be doing poorly. As the survey results detailed in this report show, Black women believe that improving Black men’s employment and well-being is beneficial for improving the lives of Black girls and women, and the Black community as a whole.
While this report focuses on the employment challenges of Black men, other groups also face significant employment challenges that are worthy of specific attention. The ultimate goal is to create an economy of full employment for all regardless of race, gender, and geographic region.54
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Carson, E. Ann. 2022. “Prisoners in 2021 – Statistical Tables.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://bjs.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh236/files/media/document/p21st.pdf.
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