Incarceration, Employment and Marriage Promotion

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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Blacks have the lowest employment rate of all the major racial groups in the United States. But the official rate provided by data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is actually too high. The official data excludes institutional populations which includes prisons. America has, by far, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and blacks are grossly over-represented in America’s prisons. Excluding this population thus produces an overestimate of the black employment rate, especially for black men.

Blacks are also over-represented in America’s military and the blacks in the military are also not counted. If one counts blacks in prisons as not employed then blacks in the military should be counted as employed.

What happens when one makes these adjustments to calculate the black employment rate? Estimates of the 2007 incarcerated black population [PDF] is readily available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But these estimates are for individuals 18 years old and above. The labor statistics start at 16 years old. Military statistics for 2007 are more difficult to find. There is 2005 data however. It is not clear, to me at least, whether “accessions” should be included. I counted only the enlisted force and officers and using the 2005 numbers as the best approximation of the 2007 numbers. Because these numbers are imperfect estimates, they can provide only a rough approximation and not a truly precise picture.

In 2007, the overall black non-hispanic employment rate was 58.3 percent. If one counts the incarcerated as not employed and those in the military as employed, this rate declines to 56.8 percent. The real significance of this adjustment comes when one looks at the rates for men and women separately. The black male rate declines by 3.2 percent to 57.2 percent. The black female rate declines by 0.1 percent to 56.5 percent. Incarceration further diminishes the already extremely low black male employment rate. The white male rate is about 10 percentage points higher before one adjusts for incarceration.

For the other major racial groups in the U.S., the male employment rate is more than 10 points higher than the female rate. For blacks, the rates are almost equal. This is because the black male employment rate is incredibly low.

Politicians and others want to promote marriage among blacks. But if they cannot create jobs for black men and see that employers hire black men, I don’t see how black marriage rates are going to increase. Even underclass theorists used to admit that non-working black men are not very marriageable. But the “children” of the underclass theorists want to talk about marriage as if it has no relation to the low employment rates of black men. Policy wise, we keep moving from bad ideas to worse ones.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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