Correcting education attainment discrepancies among Black people in the United States
By Dr. Ivory A. Toldson and Aviella Snitman
Using the American Community Survey (ACS) to generate Public-Use Microdata Samples, we explored differences in common occupations and income levels of Black and White men and women with paired educational backgrounds. Findings revealed that higher paying occupations were more common among White men and women, even with educational parity with Black men and women. In addition, compared to lesser educated White people, lesser educated Black people were more likely to be unemployed, have lower paying occupations, and live below the national poverty rate. Policy implications for correcting education-attainment discrepancies among black people in the United States are discussed.
Notwithstanding many social and economic strides that Black people have achieved over the last century, research evidence suggest that African American’s socioeconomic status continues to lag behind Whites, even with equal levels of educational attainment. In 2008, the overall unemployment rate for Black college graduates was nearly double that of White college graduates (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Racial differences are also evident in the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers. In 2007, White workers earned a median wage of $716, while Black workers earned $589 and Hispanic workers earned $529 (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). In a 2004 study examining differences in fictitious job applications with White- and Black-sounding names, researchers surmised that employment discrimination remains a problem in the United States (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). They suggested that racial disparities are consistent across occupation, industry, and employer size.
For this investigation, the authors used the 2007 American Community Survey (ACS) (United States. Congress. House. Committee on Government Reform. Subcommittee on the Census., 2001) to analyze education, economic, and occupation trends among Black people in the United States. The ACS has been conducted each year since 2000 and is expected to reach 3 million Americans per year; playing a major role in determining national, state, and local educational priorities. The samples in this study were generated using Public-Use Microdata Sample (United States Bureau of the Census, 2003) files, which have individual-level U. S. Census and ACS participants. PDQ-Explore (Anderson, 1997), a data mining tool designed to tabulate census data, was used to examine and compare trends across races. The national poverty line was used to classify economic status, whereby those who were at or below poverty (i.e. an individual making less than $10,000 per year) were considered “poor,” those who were between the rate and twice the poverty rate were considered “near poor,” those with an annual income that was between twice the poverty rate and five times the rate was considered “middle class,” and those with an annual income of greater than five times the rate of poverty were considered “comfortable.”
Education Parity and Occupation Differences
Tables 1 through 4 display the top 10 occupations among White and Black men and women separated into two categories: (a) those that have at least a bachelor’s degree; and (b) those with no more than a high school diploma. Several notable differences in top occupations emerged among race and genders for those with at least a bachelor’s degree. First, only White men with college degrees had both American “dream jobs” in the top ten (e.g., doctors and lawyers). Neither doctor nor lawyer appeared in the top 10 for Black men or women with college degrees. Second, only White men with college degrees had “chief executives” in the top ten. The respective ranking for Black men was 21 and for Black women it was 51. Third, Black men with college degrees were much more likely than White men with college degrees to become counselors or social workers.
Stark differences also emerged among Black and White workers with no more than a high school diploma. First, only Black men and women had “unemployed” in the top ten among those with no more than a high school diploma. Second, among individuals with no more than a high school diploma, only White men and women had “first-line supervisors” in the top ten. The respective ranking for Black men was 23 and for Black women, 20. Finally, there were significant differences in the top ten occupations of Black and White women with no more than a high school diploma. Numbers 2 and 3, administrative assistants and waitresses, for White women, did not make the top ten for Black women.
Education Parity and Economic Differences
As shown in Figures 1 and 2, education is an important key to economic attainment in the United States. Among Blacks and Whites, those with lower levels of education are more likely to live in poverty, and those with higher levels of education are more likely to have an annual income that places them in the middle class or better. Unfortunately, access to wealth among Blacks appears to be mitigated by racial disadvantages. For those who reported that they had less than a fourth grade education, 38.98% of Black respondents and 14.09% of White respondents reported that they were living below the poverty level. For example, Figure 1 reveals that a Black person with some college has a greater chance of living in poverty than a White person who did not complete high school. Similarly, White people with master’s degrees are more likely to live above middle class than Black people with doctorate degrees.
Correcting Education-Attainment Discrepancies
Above any other finding, the research reported clearly demonstrates that education is an important tool for Blacks to realize higher paying occupations and reduce levels of poverty and unemployment. Black college graduates are more than four times more likely to be financially affluent, and more than five times less likely to live in poverty than Blacks who drop out of high school. In part, education also corrects economic disparities between races because there are greater racial economic disparities between lesser-educated people than between higher-educated people.
Based on the findings, problems related to discrepancies between education and attainment depend on two key factors: (a) higher paying occupations are more commonly held among White people, even when controlling for education; and (b) the lack of education increases the chances that a Black person will be unemployed or live in poverty. Notably, educated Black men are more likely to hold jobs in helping professions, such as teachers, counselors, and social workers than educated White males. Therefore, correcting education-attainment discrepancies in some cases may involve advocating for higher pay for existing jobs.
Overall, economic policies should address poverty in the Black community. The declining number of jobs with a livable wage that provide benefits such as health insurance and access to safe and affordable child care are disproportionately burdening the Black community. A safety net to ease periods of unemployment, health crises, and family problems are necessary to correct education-attainment discrepancies among Blacks in the United States. The education and employment trends highlighted in this study also underscore the continuing need to promote a progressive research agenda for Black education that confronts White privilege. This issue of The Journal of Negro Education highlights the work of scholars who propose strategies to improve the educational experiences of Black Americans, based on historical analysis, empirical research, and qualitative observations.
Anderson, A. F. (1997). Application of high-performance computing to the management of social science and demographic data. [Article]. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 29(1), 86.
Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. The American Economic Review, 94, 991-1013.
U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009). Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2008. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.
United States. Bureau of the Census. (2003). Census 2000 public use microdata sample (PUMS) Available from http://www.census.gov/support/PUMSdata.html
United States. Congress. House. Committee on Government Reform. Subcommittee on the Census. (2001). The Census Bureau's proposed American Community Survey (ACS) : hearing before the Subcommittee on the Census of the Committee on Government Reform, House of Representatives, One Hundred Seventh Congress, first session, June 13, 2001. Washington: U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O. Congressional Sales Office.
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Ivory A. Toldson is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Negro Education, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology, with the School of Education at Howard University. Aviella Snitman is a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology Program at Howard University, Washington, DC. This article was originally published in the Journal of Negro Education.
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