Black and Out of Work: How the Recession Changed Government Employment

The public sector used to be a place of upward mobility for minorities, particularly black women.
by | December 2015
Black women wait at the front of the line for employment interviews at a job fair. (AP/Nick Ut)

State and local governments have historically provided a pathway to stable, middle-class employment for those without many opportunities in the private sector. Following World War II and the civil rights movement, large numbers of minorities found jobs with states, cities and counties as those workforces were expanding. More recently, though, the upward mobility once offered by those jobs appears to have diminished.

States and localities currently employ roughly a half-million fewer workers than in the years leading up to the Great Recession. Not only are there fewer opportunities to be hired, but recent research suggests African-Americans have been disproportionately burdened by the public sector’s downsizing.

A study published earlier this year by the University of Washington’s Jennifer Laird uncovered stark differences in how public-sector workers fared in the aftermath of the recession. An analysis of U.S. Labor Department data found that the odds of losing a job had climbed much faster for black government workers than for their white colleagues. Disparities were most severe for black women in government, who were more than twice as likely to experience unemployment as were white women. Unmarried women living with children were also found to have higher unemployment rates.

Part of the reason public-sector layoffs hit blacks particularly hard is that they are a disproportionate presence on government payrolls. About 18 percent of all employed blacks work in government, compared to 13 percent for the rest of the population, according to 2014 Labor Department annual averages. Current Population Survey data further indicates black women are about twice as likely to work in public administration as Hispanics and Asian men.

Black Men, Black Women, Non-Hispanic White Men, Non-Hispanic White Women

Many black women working in government hold administrative and secretarial positions. Those jobs, according to Laird’s research, were among the most likely to fall victim to recession-fueled budget cuts. Large numbers of women identified in the study, which considered all areas of public employment, also likely work in education.

Another possible explanation for the demographic disparity lies in the way job cuts are applied. In government, workforce reductions are often tied to seniority, so African-American women may be disproportionally affected if there are more of them with less tenure, says Neil Reichenberg, who heads the International Public Management Association for Human Resources.

When it comes to hiring, governments commonly adhere to strict monitoring and reporting requirements meant to promote diversity. Many municipalities have launched initiatives or have dedicated offices tasked with recruiting employees of diverse backgrounds. Such efforts do not come into play, though, when there are workforce reductions.

The study did not attempt to determine whether actual discrimination took place. But even after controlling for age, occupation and other factors, Laird found that black women in government still experienced larger declines in employment than whites.

Many laid-off minority workers have struggled to regain their footing in either the public or private sectors. Among government workers who lost their jobs between 2009 and 2013, black men were most likely to remain unemployed. Black women were the least likely to find jobs in the private sector, and the most likely to cease their job search and exit the labor force entirely. “It’s a permanent result of [government] contraction,” Laird says.

All of this raises concerns for the long-term job prospects for black public-sector employees. Steven Pitts, who has researched government employment at the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says there just isn’t the same stability there once was. In the past, he says, “manufacturing, self employment and the public sector were the three pillars of good jobs for blacks. Now, that is changing.”