Hidden Figures: Black Employment Expanded in May

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at a rally at JQH Arena in Springfield, Missouri on September 21, 2018. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

What’s the best-kept secret about the labor market in May? Probably the expansion of black employment.

The number of African Americans holding jobs expanded to 16,523,000 from 16,240,000 in May. That 283,000 rise was more than ten time the rise of the population, so it involves a real expansion of employment among African Americans.

Both black men and black women gained jobs. Black male jobholders increased by 170,000 to 8.97 million. Black female jobholders rose by 102,000 to 10.97 million. Those are record-high gains for each category.

So why did Bloomberg and others report these record-high job gains as if they were losses?

“Trump Invokes Floyd on Job Data Even as Black Unemployment Soars,” a Bloomberg headline proclaimed.

The black unemployment rate did rise slightly in May, ticking up from 16.7 to 16.8. But that was because the reopening of the American economy drew more African Americans into the workforce, increasing it by 377,000 workers. That raised the workforce participation rate from 58.6 percent to 59.6 percent.

The unemployment rate is the percentage of workers who say they want work but cannot find it. Even with no change in employment, it can fall if people stop looking for jobs, becoming what economists call “discouraged workers.” And it can rise if more people look for work, which is what happened in May for African Americans.

In other words, the black unemployment rate rose for the best possible reason: because more African Americans were finding jobs, drawing even more into the workforce.

That is how President Donald Trump could have explained to PBS Newshour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor that this is “a victory”

It’s also notable that even with the expansion of the workforce, African American unemployment dropped to 15.5 from 16.1. It rose among black women from 16.4 to 16.5 and black teenagers from 28 percent to 34 percent.

Of course, African American employment has still suffered horrendously under the coronavirus shutdowns. Back in February, the participation rate had risen all the way to 63.1 percent. The unemployment rate had fallen 5.8 percent. A total of 19.73 million African Americans held jobs.

So the economy has a long way to go to rebuild black employment. But May was a good month for black employment and the beginning of the recovery rather than another step-down.

 

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