Black ladies are gaining floor within the job market however nonetheless face distinctive limitations

An employee works at the BMW plant in Greer, South Carolina on October 19, 2022.

Bob Stark | Reuters

A decline in the unemployment rate for black women is encouraging, but labor experts warn that this trend shouldn’t create misconceptions about equal opportunities in the workforce.

The unemployment rate for all black people has not risen since August and was 5.4% in January, according to seasonally adjusted data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday.

The January drop in black unemployment was driven by gains in black women, whose unemployment rate excluding teens fell to 4.7% in January from 5.5% in December. In comparison, black male unemployment rose to 5.3% in January from 5.1% in December.

The unemployment rate for all black people, and for women in particular, is at its lowest level in more than a year. The last time the Black unemployment rate was below 5.5% was in September 2019, while the Black female unemployment rate was last below 5% in November 2021.

White, Asian, and Hispanic/Latino blue-collar unemployment rates all rose from December through January. Still, black workers have the highest unemployment rates compared to white, Asian, and Hispanic/Latino workers.

“Sometimes people see improvements as positives, but the disparities are still there,” said Kate Bahn, director of labor policy and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “Convergence is good, but still not equal.”

Bahn said the relatively higher rate could be specifically attributed to anti-black racism. She pointed to discrimination against blacks in hiring and the increased likelihood of layoffs experienced by black workers as two examples. While a tight labor market can help alleviate some of these challenges for black workers, policy changes would be needed to create a more equitable field of work, she said.

Black women saw larger gains in the employment rate, which shows the number employed as a percentage of the total population. While black men saw a 0.2 percentage point gain between December and January, black women gained 1.1 percentage points.

Both groups also reported an increase in the total number of active workers.

Valerie Wilson, director of a program focused on race, ethnicity and economics at the Economic Policy Institute, said January can be a particularly difficult month to infer trends as population data changes with the new year.

Looking at the actual numbers, there are more unemployed black women, although the percentage of unemployed has fallen within the same demographic.

She said the job gains were at least partly due to tightening across the labor market. The unemployment rate came in below analysts’ expectations at 3.4% in January, the lowest since May 1969.

“When you get these really low unemployment rates, we tend to see more change in groups with higher unemployment rates,” Wilson said. “Anyone who is currently unemployed or still looking for a job is more likely to be a person who has a new position.”

And just because black women and black people as a whole are finding employment doesn’t always mean new hires are doing better. She pointed out that wage growth is showing signs of slowing down. Additionally, the hospitality and leisure sector – which Wilson says typically pays less than other industries – added the most jobs this month.

“It really depends on how you’re better off or injured or want to define it,” Wilson said. “There are more jobs for those who want to find employment. That alone doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of those jobs.”

“I don’t think a job is better than no job at all,” she added, “but the fact that you can find employment is at least a marginal improvement over not having a job.”

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