With all the talk about the struggles of white working-class men and their role in handing the presidency to Donald Trump, you’d think they were the most economically disadvantaged people in the country ― that somehow, workers of color were seeing their economic prospects rise at the expense of white workers without college degrees.
First, the working class ― which we’re defining as people without college degrees ― isn’t exclusively made up of white people. Hispanic, black and Asian workers comprise about 40 percent of those in the labor force without degrees.
Second, all working-class Americans are suffering through stagnant wages and a job market that’s increasingly terrible for those without a lot of education.
The reasons black working-class people didn’t line up for Trump should be pretty obvious by now. The president-elect’s campaign was full of racist and bigoted rhetoric ― and white supremacists have been energized by his victory.
Economically speaking, Trump’s appeal to white working-class men makes sense ― whereas once they were doing well with good jobs, they’re now struggling. (College-educated whites also backed Trump in large numbers, however.) Mortality rates among middle-aged whites are also increasing, though death rates for middle-aged blacks, while decreasing, are still higher.
Meanwhile, members of the black working class has been struggling all along, and in recent years, their economic situation has gotten worse.
Changes in the labor market, especially since the Great Recession, have hit many U.S. workers hard, but particularly black men. Indeed, a new analysis from economists at Duke University and the University of Chicago finds that the median earnings of white working-age men are twice that of their black contemporaries.
More disturbing: That ratio is pretty close to what it was in 1960.
“The fact that the working class is struggling is hurting everybody, but it’s having an outsized effect on black men,” said Patrick Bayer, a professor of economics at Duke who co-authored the paper.
The paper is not the first to note the wide racial earnings gap. A paper released this fall from the progressive Economic Policy Institute found that these gaps are wider now than they were in 1979, thanks to rising unemployment, the decline of unions and weak enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. (The lax enforcement seems certain to continue if Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is confirmed. The Alabama Republican has been a vocal opponent of civil rights laws.)
But Bayer and his co-author, Kerwin Kofi Charles of the University of Chicago, did something a little different from past researchers. Instead of looking only at men in the labor market, they considered all U.S. men ages 25-54, including those who are unemployed or incarcerated. Black men are overrepresented in both categories: Black male unemployment is almost double that of white male unemployment and incarceration rates are also disproportionately high.
Looking at the wider universe of men gives you a better picture of “what’s actually happening in our economy as a whole,” Bayer said. The measure accounts for the likelihood that people are able to find work, as well as their earnings when they do so.
“Back in 1940 there were plenty of jobs for men with less than a high school degree,” Bayer says in a piece on Duke University’s website. “Now education is more and more a determinant of who’s working and who’s not.”
This means that more working-age men aren’t working at all. In 1960, 8 percent of white men ages 25-54 weren’t working; in 2014, that number had climbed to 17 percent. For black men in that age group, it’s 35 percent.
Over the same time period, more women entered the labor force, so the picture for them is different. Indeed, black women participate in the labor market at higher rates than any other group of women.