Black workers also are less likely to receive employee benefits, including employer-provided health insurance, paid leave and retirement contributions, than their white counterparts, analysts found. The findings were part of a recent report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent research group that analyzes D.C. economic data and produces policy recommendations.
U.S. Department of Labor data released last week showed the national unemployment rate for African Americans grew one-tenth of a percent in January to 6 percent — a decrease from a year ago, but higher than the overall unemployment rate of 3.6 percent. The national jobless rate remains near a 50-year low.
In the District, numbers tell a different story.
The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes quarterly jobs numbers, found in late 2019 that black unemployment rates were the highest of any group in the country, and in the District, the percentage of out-of-work black residents outpaced unemployed white residents at a rate of about 6 to 1.
Unemployment in the District is 5.4 percent, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services. But 11.3 percent of black workers were unemployed as of late last year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, while only 1.9 percent of white workers were unable to find work.
Doni Crawford, a policy analyst who co-authored the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute report, said the employment gap exists even when comparing populations with similar education and skills training.
The median black household income in the District last year was about $45,200, according to the report — a number that, adjusted for inflation, has hardly budged in more than a decade. The median white household, meanwhile, earned about $142,500, up about $17,000 adjusted for inflation from 2008.
Crawford said that gulf in income might help to explain other issues facing the city as the District’s population grows and gentrification sweeps through neighborhoods.
“As we’ve seen rent rising in D.C., black residents are being displaced because they are the only group of people in the District whose income has remained relatively flat,” Crawford said. “This is Chocolate City. Black people spent years trying to build their own institutions from schools to banks to hotels when private practices and public policies didn’t serve them. . . . Now that the things are changing, they should be able to stay in their homes and enjoy the prosperity.”
But city officials said the report does not offer a full picture of black residents and their participation in the labor force.
Officials in the D.C. Department of Employment Services pointed to a number of Districtwide programs aimed at improving economic opportunities for black residents, including apprenticeship programs, youth worker development programs, internships and training for residents returning from prison.
District officials characterized the report as incomplete, saying that employment among residents east of the Anacostia River has gone up. In July, the city’s minimum wage will increase to $15 an hour — more than double the federal hourly rate of $7.25 — giving a boost to the lowest-paid workers.
Officials also pointed to a recent City Lab analysis that found the District outranks all other cities in the country for black women’s economic prospects.
Unique Morris-Hughes, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, said the city has made black economic mobility a priority.
“The entire Bowser administration remains focused on creating opportunities that will ensure a fair shot for residents across all eight wards,” she said in a statement, referring to the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.
But Crawford said those successes do little to change a broader pattern of economic disenfranchisement that has existed for centuries.
“The District’s economy is very strong — but it’s not strong for many black workers, and that’s by design,” she said. “Even when we’re talking about black people with jobs, they don’t get paid as much as white workers when they have the same education attainment or work in the same position. This disparity really affects longtime D.C. residents.”
The report offers several policy solutions to District officials, including investing in black-owned small businesses and awarding them more government contracts.
It also recommends the city double down on enforcing existing labor laws, including wage and worker protections, as well as the First Source Program, which mandates that District government contractors hire city residents for at least half the workforce on any new project.
D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who chairs the council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said the report’s recommendations mirror the council’s approach to addressing black economic inequity.
“The report’s road map for eliminating racial inequity in our city — recognizing structural racism in employment, improving and enhancing city-funded job training through oversight and emphasis on connecting residents to living-wage careers, and aligning with business to create job pipelines into our biggest industries — is a path my Labor Committee is on and fully embraces,” Silverman said in a statement. “We need to address these issues with urgency.”