Mike Mozart

There's been lots of debate in the post-recession era about what kinds of jobs the economy has been creating. While there has been consistent payroll growth since the end of the Great Recession, some have argued that much of this growth has been centered in low-wage jobs.

That certainly seems to be the case for black workers, according to new data compiled by the Brookings Institution.


The think tank first looked at changes in earnings by race between 2009 and 2014. While everyone's earnings have decreased, there has been a much steeper drop-off for black workers.

Their wages have fallen by more than 10% in 20 of the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. Here are the top 5 cities that have seen the greatest such declines:

  1. Akron: -27.3%
  2. Las Vegas: -22.2%
  3. Sacramento: -22.1%
  4. Winston-Salem: -21.2%
  5. New Haven: -19.9%

To figure out what's behind these wage losses, Brookings looked at employment levels in various sectors in cities across the country. They found that, in cities as varied as Akron, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, the share of black laborers working in middle-paying sales and office jobs, and higher-paying management, business, financial and computer science jobs has fallen, while the share working in lower-paying food service occupations has climbed.


This chart shows the trend, with each bubble representing a metro area. I added a red arrow showing the general trend of declining shares of black workers in higher-end jobs, on the left, and rising shares of them in lower-paying ones, on the right.


Today, black workers comprise 11.7% of the employed people in the U.S., but now make up 52.1% of nursing home workers (annual mean wage: $25,640), 43.5% of health care service workers (annual mean wage: $22,870) , and 19.8% of department store workers (annual mean wage: $22,110). The share of black workers in each of these categories has increased since 2009.

Brookings' Alan Berube, who put together the data, does not speculate on why this shift might be occurring. But we know for a fact that the economy has been adding both high-paying and low-paying jobs, with middle-income jobs disappearing.


We also know that the unemployment rate for African Americans has fallen faster than for other races (though that's partially because it had a long way to fall). Today the black-white unemployment gap is as small as it has ever been, as the black unemployment rate continues to decline at a more rapid pace (it's fallen in six of the last 12 months for black workers, compared with just four for white workers).


So what appears to be happening is that while more black workers are finding jobs, there remain barriers preventing them from getting into higher-paying ones. Age may be playing a part in this (at 40, black workers have the youngest median age of any race in the U.S.)—but there are many factors—such as deeply entrenched institutional racism;  the loss of public sector and union jobs, which black workers have long relied on to stay in the middle class; black students' being overrepresented in a for-profit school system whose promises have fallen flat; and the closures of public schools in the nation's biggest cities—which could be playing a role in stymieing black success in the labor market.

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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