December 13, 1998


Legacy of the '90s Boom: More Jobs for Black Men


One heartening byproduct of the current economic boom is that more young black men are working or going to school. In the last few years, unemployment rates have dropped sharply, the share of 16- to 24-year-olds at work has rebounded, and school enrollment has spurted.

Almost any gains on this front are worth celebrating. The collapse of work among young black men in the 1960s and 1970s counts as the biggest economic and social disaster of the post-World War II era.

Back in the bad old '40s and '50s, young black men were as likely to work as young white men were. By the 1970s, the pay gap between young black and young white workers had all but disappeared. But in the decades that followed, steady, legitimate work simply disappeared from the lives of half of the country's young black men.

After nearly eight years of growth, the tightest labor market in decades is having a noticeable effect on their participation in the work force and on employers' willingness to hire them. (The employment figures do not reflect the growth in the percentage of young black men who are in jail or prison, so it is unclear whether things have improved quite as much as the jobs data show.)

The question now is whether the recent improvement has a chance of sticking through the next recession. Labor markets were tight in the late 80s, and more young black men found work then, too -- only to see their gains disappear in the 1990s.

There are some reasons for cautious optimism. For starters, the rewards of working have been growing lately. Since 1996, pay for the bottom 20 percent of the work force -- the young, inexperienced and unskilled, who tend to work in stores and restaurants -- are seeing wage gains of 3.6 percent a year after inflation, thanks both to increases in the minimum wage and to employers' difficulties in filling vacancies.

"That's much better than anything we've seen in the last 25 years," said Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard and a former chief economist at the Labor Department. Some economists think the long-term trends driving down pay at the bottom of the ladder may be abating.

Federal help for the working poor adds to the payoff. "Between the Bush and Clinton administrations, subsidies to working poor have exploded," said Douglas J. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute. And day care subsidies have mushroomed.

Cities and states, meanwhile, have stopped making welfare checks available to single men, as some have done since the 1960s, and Washington has dropped single men from eligibility for food stamps.

The push to move many single mothers off welfare also seems to be changing domestic arrangements in ways promoting work among young black males. At least half who leave the rolls depart not for jobs but to move in with someone else, often a husband or boyfriend.

"Are some of those 50 percent telling boyfriends, 'If you expect to continue this relationship, you'd better get a job'?" Besharov asked rhetorically. "It's a plausible story, for which there's very little evidence."

More important, the main alternative to work -- crime -- has become a much less attractive way to make a living. The crack cocaine trade has collapsed. Estimates of hourly pay in the illegal-drug business suggest that it is surprisingly low, perhaps not much more than the current minimum wage.

And the police in cities like New York have gotten savvier as well as tougher, said James Q. Wilson of the University of California at Los Angeles. So crime rates are down sharply in many cities.

According to Bruce Weinberg, an economist at Ohio State University, there is some evidence that a more vibrant job market for low-skilled workers means fewer muggings, burglaries, car thefts and other property crimes. But the direction of causation probably goes the other way.

"Crime may cause poverty," wrote Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their book, "America in Black and White." They cite evidence that crime is a major reason employers leave the inner city, and a strong reason some employers are reluctant to hire young black men, whether they have criminal records or have merely been stereotyped.

The gains of the 1980s boom may have evaporated so quickly because of crack cocaine. In the late 1980s, a well-known study of young black men in Massachusetts by Katz and his colleague Richard Freeman found that, even though many more found jobs when the overall unemployment rate fell below 3 percent, two-thirds -- twice the proportion of five years earlier -- said their chances of making a good living were better on the streets than in legitimate jobs. That fraction has probably declined.

For young black men today, "having less of a criminal record and more of a work record is a good sign for when they're older," said Katz.

Besharov added, "The strong economy primes the pump, but as people change attitudes and build up their ability for work, some of the gains are going to stick."

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