The public sector has had a long history of providing economic opportunity for historically underrepresented groups in the U.S. labor market. Since 1960, the percentage of black workers in the public sector has been higher than their percentage of the general population. Despite some remaining limitations, the public sector has been a reliable source of economic opportunity for black Americans. Until recently.
That’s the finding of a study released today, by Jennifer Laird, a University of Washington sociologist. Laird analyzed federal employment data from 2003-2013, including gender, race and public versus private sector status. Black public sector workers, she found, were more likely to become unemployed than their white or Hispanic counterparts during that time period.
Laird considers two broad forces that led to especially deep and long-lasting effects: the sudden drop in tax revenues due to the Great Recession, and the rise of the Tea Party, particularly at the state level. Roughly 40 percent of state and local governments reported layoffs in 2011 alone, she cites in the study. Moreover, while private sector job growth has returned to pre-Great Recession levels, public sector job growth remains in the doldrums.
“As a result of the public sector decline, black workers, particularly black women, were affected in two ways,” Laird says. “Just by virtue of being concentrated in public sector jobs they were disproportionately affected. Then, black women were the least likely to find private sector jobs and most likely to leave the labor force completely. In the study, I call it a ‘double-disadvantage’ for black women.”
Laird looked into other possible variables that could account for those disparities. She found that job cuts among black government workers occurred at steeper rates than other groups even after controlling for education, job type, skill differences and other factors. Even among teachers with a master’s degree, black employees were more likely to lose their jobs than other groups, says Laird.
Her findings aren’t necessarily evidence of managers actively discriminating against black employees, which would, of course, be illegal. More likely, the broad political climate is to blame for targeting certain parts of government but not others.
“When these anti-big-government movements came about, they did not mainly target job cuts at police officers for example or firefighters,” she explains. “They don’t target these public sector occupations because of their big influence on voting and lobbying, and at the same time these occupations tend to have a high representation of white workers.”
In the study, Laird likens the public sector restructuring of the Great Recession to the industrial restructuring of post 1970s, as documented by renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson. Just as Wilson contends that the U.S. economy’s shift away from manufacturing had a uniquely pernicious effect on black households, Laird is contending that it is possible the economy is experiencing a different shift but with the same or similar effect on black families.
“The next step is drilling down to the local level, figuring out what’s the context, what are the mechanisms that are really driving these disparities,” Laird adds. “I’m looking at within metro areas, trying to figure out things like public sector employment, how many public sector jobs there are, how might that impact black/white unemployment disparities.”
Some cities are already focusing on making public sector employment a source of economic opportunity — jobs as well as business opportunity — for people of color and women.
At the end of last year, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh created that city’s first Mayor’s Office of Diversity. “Even before being sworn in as mayor, I made some very ambitious and serious promises about increasing diversity across our workforce and ensuring that City government reflects the people we represent,” Walsh said at the time.
In New York City, using his powers as chief financial officer, responsible for auditing city agencies and overseeing procurement, Comptroller Scott M. Stringer hired his own Chief Diversity Officer, Carra Wallace, the first citywide diversity officer in New York, in order to spearhead a number of equity initiatives related to contractors. (The focus makes sense in an era when the definition of “job” is tilting away from full-time employee status.)
“Procurement is really the key to changing the economic landscape of the city,” Wallace says via email. That work started off with a bang, in the form of the “Making the Grade” report, disclosing city agency dollars spent on procuring goods and services from minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs). Each agency also received a letter grade for how much they did business with M/WBEs, with two-thirds of agencies getting a “D” or “F” and the city as a whole getting a “D.”
The Comptroller’s office also oversees management of the city’s pension funds, a position that affords some rarely used but real power to achieve goals the city has set for creating economic opportunity that is equally accessible to all. They are asking money managers with whom they work to provide hard data about the racial and gender composition of their investment teams, and assuring them that diversity is going to become a key factor in selecting money management firms.
Such transparency and accountability jibes with the historic reasons that the public sector became a reliable source of economic opportunity for people of color. “In the public sector ramp-up after World War II,” Laird explains, “black workers and women were able to take advantage of all these new government positions because hiring processes were being closely watched, promotion processes were being closely watched, contracting closely watched.”
Vigilance, as always, remains vital.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.