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The gap: Why black men are losing ground to white men

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The Midwest has become a cold place for African-Americans.

A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank, St. Louis District, finds that the earnings gap between white and black men in the Midwest has been getting progressively bigger for over a generation.

And the earnings gap keeps growing despite the huge strides that black men made in closing the education and academic performance gaps with white men.

Contrary to the usual expectations, higher education has not paid off in the job market for black men in the Midwest.

Natalia Kolesnikova and Yang Liu looked at income trends from 1970 to 2000 and ended up calling that period “a bleak 30 years for black men.” Kolesnikova is an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Liu is a research associate at the bank.

The drop in the average black man’s annual income in the Midwest was the most pronounced in Chicago, where black men went from making 69 percent of what white men made in 1970 to only 55 percent in 2000. In Detroit the drop was from 71 percent to 63 percent; in Cleveland from 70 percent to 63 percent; and in St. Louis black men went from earning 66 percent of a white man’s annual income in 1970 to 62 percent in 2000.

Kolesnikova and Liu found similar trends in other parts of the country, but the results were the severest in the Midwest. Only in the South did they find a closing of the income gap, led by Memphis where the income gap started at 52 percent and closed by 14 percentage points over 30 years.

“Unfortunately, the report completely makes sense,” said Algernon Austin, director of the program on race, ethnicity and the economy at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

“The most successful African-Americans are highly visible, like Barack Obama, but that hides the picture for the majority of blacks and the majority of black men, which is much less positive,” he said.

Kolesnikova said the wage gap remained essentially stagnant, showing that there was no improvement for individuals who stayed employed and in the same occupation.

The growing income gap, she said, reflected a growing employment gap. That is because annual incomes reflect not just wages, but also the average number of weeks of employment during the year.

A significant decline occurred in the average number of weeks that black men worked per year between 1970 and 2000, while the average number of weeks that white men worked stayed nearly steady, Kolesnikova said.

In Chicago, black men worked an average of only 34 weeks in 2000, down from 45 weeks in 1970. In Detroit, they worked an average of 35 weeks in 2000, also down from 45 weeks in 1970.

That decline in part reflects falling employment. In 1970, 88 percent of black men in Chicago between the ages of 24 and 55 had a job, as did 86 percent in Detroit, 85 percent in Cleveland, and 83 percent in St. Louis. In 2000, only 69 percent of black men in Chicago were employed, as were 69 percent in Detroit, 72 percent in Cleveland, and 72 percent in St. Louis, Kolesnikova said.

“In terms of participation in the labor force, the disparities have very much worsened,” Austin said, who added that employment rates have decreased in the last decade. “Detroit was the worst off with a black male employment rate of 64 percent for 25-55 year olds in 2008,” he said.

And the Great Recession has made conditions even more dire. As many as 20 percent of those who had jobs in some Midwestern cities have lost their jobs in the recession, Austin said. “If you look at employment among all black men, the percentage of those with jobs in 2010 in down in the low fifties,” he said. The percentage of black men employed nationwide has hovered around 53 percent since August 2009.

And for black men aged 24-55, the group that Kolesnikova looked at, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the employment rate drops in some cities below 60 percent this year,” Austin said

Where’s the ‘education effect’?
The collapse in employment came despite significant advances in educational achievement. In 1970, 63 percent of black men between the ages of 22 and 55 lacked even a high school diploma; by 2000 only 13 percent of black men in that age group still lacked a high school degree.

In 1970, only 13 percent of black men had attended college and only 6 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher. By 2000 those numbers had increased substantially to 44 percent and 14 percent.

Despite that fact that black men made enormous strikes in closing the education gap with white men, Kolesnikova said the remaining education gap – among white men in 2000, 61 percent had some college and half of those had a bachelor’s degree or higher – as one of the reasons that black men fell further behind their white counterparts economically.

“As more and more jobs required training beyond high school, black men were in a worse position than white men because of the relatively low levels of education,” she said.

“Education is not the full story,” Austin said. “Controlling for educational attainments, you find that wage disparities between blacks and whites are the same at all educational levels,” he said.

According to Austin, in 2008, among male workers 25 years old and over, the median wage for black men without a high school diploma was only 61 percent of the median wage of their white counterparts. The median wage for those who had a high school diploma or GED was 74 percent of the median wage for similar white men. For black men with some college, the median wage was 74 percent of the wage given to similar white men. The median salary for black men with a bachelor’s degree also was 74 percent of the median salary given to their white counterparts. The gap narrowed somewhat, to 83 percent, for the small number of those with advanced degrees.

“The idea that disparities are solely because of education does not hold up,” he said.

Austin noted that Jared Bernstein, formerly with the Economic Policy Institute, had studied the gap between black academic progress and economic gains in 1995.

Bernstein wrote that blacks had closed most of the gap in years of schooling between themselves and whites by 1990, and they had also made great progress in the 1970s and 1980s in closing the gap in test scores, but those gains were not reflected in the labor market, where’s blacks actually lost ground.

He noted however, as does Kolesnikova, that blacks continued to lag in rates of college completion.

A college degree is important – political scientist Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute calls its requirement “a brutal fact of life in the American job market – but for what reason?

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that only 20 percent of U.S. jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2016.

However, according to the Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “today’s college degree is yesterday’s high school diploma.” Citing statistics relating to getting just some college, and not necessarily a degree, he said that the proportion of U.S. jobs requiring at least some college education climbed from 28 percent in 1973 to 59 percent in 2009, with the biggest jump coming in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1970, when a high school diploma was supposed to be a ticket to a good job, only 13 percent of black men possessed that ticket. By 1992, nearly 80 percent of black men had a high school diploma, and employers no longer recognized it as a ticket for work. Fifty-six percent of the time, according to Carnevale, employers required at least some college of job applicants.

Several conservative scholars, including Murray and Richard Vedder, an “adjunct scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University, argue that many employers are requiring college degrees for jobs that do not warrant that level of education.
“Employers do not value what the student learned, just that the student has a degree,” said Murray.

Diplomas as a screening device

As recently as 1970, employers used the requirement of a high school diploma as a way of sorting job applicants.

John Gaal, director of apprenticeship and training for the Carpenters District Council of St. Louis and Vicinity, which serves Kansas, Missouri, and part of Illinois, said that possession of a high school diploma used to tell an employer that an applicant worked hard, came to school regularly, stayed out of trouble, and followed instructions well – all qualities desired by an employer.

Possession of a high school diploma also separated whites from blacks. A notice that a “high school diploma required” effectively screened African-Americans out of the applicant pool.

As public schools replaced programs for pushing children out of school – for example, public schools in the city of St. Louis used to have a “completion certificate” that they awarded to students they deemed not college material when the students turned 16 and they ushered them out the door – with programs for keeping students in school until they graduated, the high school diploma lost its value as a screening device.
Gaal has advocated that employers use a standardized test, specifically a test from ACT Inc., called “WorkKeys,” to screen job applicants, but most employers took the easy route and just raised application requirements to a college degree.

“Employers value the B.A. because it is a no-cost (for them) screening device for academic ability and perseverance,” Murray said.

“A college degree signals that you are bright, and that is what pays off,” Kolesnikova said.

A “B.A. required” notice also has excluded most African-Americans from the pool of job applicants, although that appears to be changing as more African-Americans attend and graduate from college.

If Murray and Vedder have their way, however, African-Americans may never get the chance to close the college education gap.

Murray and Vedder claim that too many people are going to and graduating from college. According to Vedder, that diminishes the utility of a college diploma as a screening device, which causes employers to demand even higher qualifications. In a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he asked rhetorically, “Will garbage workers in 2050 need a Ph.D. in sanitary engineering to get a job?”

In the face of a long-term trend to make college education available to a greater proportion of the population, including African-Americans, Murray claims in numerous articles and interviews that opening up the doors of universities lets in people who aren’t intellectually able to enjoy or reap the advantages of a college education. And that, he says, is wasteful.

Murray first came to prominence in 1994 with the publication of The Bell Curve, a book he co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, in which he argued against social policies that promoted equal opportunities by claiming that society was best served by catering to the “intellectual elite” that naturally (he claimed) rose to the top in every field. He also claimed in it that on average black people were intellectually inferior to white people.

Even though it was widely debunked in the scientific community and ridiculed as “junk science,” the book received a lot of attention on news programs and talk shows and became a bestseller.

Since then, he has repeatedly called for reforming the nation’s education system to shift resources away from troubled, disadvantaged, or “below average” students to “gifted” students and the intellectual elite.
Could it be that the “credential inflation” scored by Vedder – from high school degree to some college to B.A. and maybe beyond – is a reflection of widespread racist impulses to preserve opportunities for whites by denying them to blacks?

Kolesnikova doesn’t buy it.

“It is not really that employers want to discriminate against people without college degrees, but rather that they are looking for the best and the brightest,” she said.

Skills trump educational attainment
The real gap between black men and white men is not educational attainment, but achievements and skills, she said.

“I think the main problem for black men is that their skill level is not sufficient to get good jobs. Skills don’t have to come from college degrees. What is important is having the skills necessary for the current labor market,” she said.

Usually in popular American culture, discussions about how the economy has changed in the last 30 years focus on a supposed need for more technical skills, but Kolesnikova said that misses the mark.

The skills that black men are missing are not academic or technical skills, she said, but rather, “non-cognitive skills… the ‘how well you play with others’ skills.”

In a recent study from St. Louis Community College, the Missouri Career Center, and the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC), employers in Illinois and Missouri complained that job applicants more often lacked so-called foundational skills than technical skills, but it did not try to determine if employers had different complaints about job applicants based on their race.

Released on August 11, 2010, “The State of St. Louis Workforce Report 2010” was drawn from surveys and interviews with both employers and unemployed workers in the St. Louis area.

Seventy percent of the 1,500 employers surveyed said they had some or great difficulty in finding qualified job applicants.

Even though employers were able to list multiple ways in which job applicants lacked qualifications for working with their companies, only 19 percent said they had trouble finding people with the technical skills necessary for their jobs. Even more employers said that job applicants lacked a strong work ethic, lacked interpersonal communication skills, or lacked critical thinking or problem solving skills. Almost as many employers said that job applicants lacked a willingness to learn or an ability to collaborate with others in teams.

Many of those skills often are referred to as “soft” skills or “work well/play well” skills.

Roderick Nunn, vice chancellor for workforce and community development at St. Louis Community College, prefers to call them “personal effectiveness” skills, and said they are distinct from academic skills and workplace skills.

The U.S. Department of Labor has developed a definition of personal effectiveness skills that includes a strong work ethic, interpersonal communication skills, and a willingness to learn. Their definition of workplace skills includes problem solving skills and an ability to work with others in teams.

Nunn declined to comment talk about race in relation to personal effectiveness skills. “I think there has not been enough research,” he said.

He did say that personal effectiveness skills are learned at home and in the community, but they can be honed at school or in the workplace. A general education curriculum rather than a vocational curriculum, which exposes students to many different topics and to working with different people in different groups, can help develop both personal effectiveness skills and workplace skills.

And the variable that best correlates with educational attainment is not race, but income, he said.
Even if a good general education can hone the soft skills employers say they want, is a college degree a good indicator of who has those skills or not?

Not really, said Nunn. “That is what the behavior interview is for,” he said. “Companies have a litany of questions to get at the soft skills.”

And that brings the discussion full circle. If many employers use a four-year college degree as a prerequisite for hiring for jobs that don’t require that level of education in an time when possession of a four-year college degree is more of a racial separator than a high school diploma or two-year degree, is the four-year degree holding the place of a racial qualification?

“That is a really good question,” Austin said. — Peter Downs

Peter Downs is a St. Louis writer and editor. Contact him at
From the fall edition of FOCUS/midwest. The entire issue is available for free at at Issuu ( and Scribd (


Written by writer. Edited by editor.

October 12, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. […] Downs of FOCUS/midwest calls our attention to a story that’s largely gone unnoticed by folks in the mainstream: The declining economic power of African […]

  2. these comments and statistics are interesting and are only showing one side of the truth. Have we forgotten that America is still a highly racist country? Look at the recent treatment of our own president. A lot of the problem with the black social issue is that you have too many people who are not apart of the black community nor have ever lived the black experience are constantly telling black people what their problems are. The black and white communities are not the same. Whites have had a 500 year head start gaining wealth, acquiring property, educating and culturing their people in their social expectations. Blacks have not been so lucky. Black people are maneuvering through a maze that has not been designed for them nor caters to any of their needs. Black people are not white people with dark skin. I think once whites understand this, then the black community may begin to rebuild itself. Whites need to stop comparing black people like blacks are lagging behind like they are apart of the same group and are treated equally and fairly according to the judicial laws because they are not the same group. What needs to happen is for blacks to readopt their own forms of education, culture, religions, social standards of behavior separate of white America. Just like the Chinese or Jewish communities who maintain a strict sense of identity and culture, yet are still able to adequately function in white America. Blacks are not their yet. Blacks are still suffering from psychological damage of segregation and the slave-mentality-complex. Yes, the chains of slavery are no longer affecting black people, but the psychological effects have not yet been addressed. Blacks of all social, ethnic and cultural classes are suffering from severe identity loss. Black men have been profiled since the late 1920s on simple, superficial, non-judicial crimes which got them lynched or put in jail. Now without a strong, positive role-model, how do the children (male) left behind aspire to be more than apathetic thugs and juvenile delinquents? They don’t. Again, the black dilemma is not a quick short answer report of finding based on field research done by graduate students; the black dilemma needs constant study and needs to involve black Ph.D.’s in the fields of Africana Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, African American History or those whom have studied the African Diaspora. There is no way that we can find a solution to this problem unless we examine the root of this problem and it didn’t stem from a lack of more white brainwashing education and poor saving’s account statements. The black problem stems from unequal opportunities and a disproportion of wealth. Once whites accept and admit that they have cheated blacks and other minorities and have robbed them of the same advances in life that they are all privileged to, these “gaps” which they believe just miraculously appeared since the 1970s yet have always existed since 1619, blacks may actually have a chance to live the American dream: freedom.


    June 17, 2011 at 2:26 am

    • Your comments are insightful and I can tell that you have strong views about Black America. I am a film maker and I am making a documentary about Black America (I will give you more specifics later). I would like to know if you would like to be interviewed for our project? contact info: or 2676799507


      January 6, 2012 at 9:13 pm

  3. You can blame the democratic party for their manipulation of the black community for the past 50 years for votes,for a starter. Then to the equally manipulative black leaders that use racism as an excuse for the lack of advancement in the black community. Then this so called black culture, of a language that is barely understandable and the image they project with the pants around their knees and hoodies. The final nail in the coffin is the lack of a family structure, and lots of illegitimate kids, with no father figure. The only whites you can blame for this mess are democratic politicians, but they didn’t teach them the language, dress them, keep them from learning in school, make all those babies, or run the dads off. No,they just took advantage of it.

    Pete Kraus, Jr.

    September 25, 2014 at 7:57 am

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