Education has long been hailed as the path to upward mobility in America. But new research points to limits of education as an economic escalator for Black workers.
In the past two decades, the number of Black workers with a four-year college degree or higher has more than doubled, to 4.8 million. But the income gains are far less than would be expected in a race-neutral labor market, a team of academic and nonprofit researchers found.
A key reason, they conclude, is the persistence of occupational segregation. Black workers with a college degree are more likely than their white peers to be employed in middle-wage jobs, like as social workers, tax examiners and education administrators.
The new report, published on Monday as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, is based on an analysis of U.S. census data and government surveys of households and businesses from 1980 to 2019.
“Education is important, but it’s no panacea,” said a member of the research group, Peter Q. Blair, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “And an education-only narrative misses other structural features of our society that have to change.”
“The core thing,” Dr. Blair said, “is how much race matters.”
The researchers measured occupational segregation by race, after taking into account other factors like gender and geography. To have an equitable distribution across the work force, 22 percent of Black workers with a college degree would have to switch occupations with white college graduates. For workers who graduated with a high school degree but lack a college degree, nearly 28 percent of either Black or white workers would have to switch jobs.
The researchers called this a “dissimilarity index,” and since 2000 it has ticked up slightly for both groups.
The new report notes that Black college students often major in fields that have lower wages. That is one potential explanation for the apparently limited impact of college on upward mobility.
But the dearth of Black students in majors that lead to higher pay in careers like technology or finance, the researchers say, is a legacy of racism.
“They don’t see people who look like them in these higher-paying fields because of longstanding discrimination,” said Ashley Jardina, the lead author of the study and a political scientist at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
Among workers with skills but not a four-year degree, Black Americans are inordinately in low-wage jobs, including as home health aides, security guards, janitors and bus drivers. They also have less access to higher-paying unionized jobs in manufacturing than their white peers.
Occupational segregation is a major cause of income inequality and has remained remarkably persistent, the researchers found.
White workers with a college degree have median wages that are 23 percent higher than college-educated Black workers. White workers who have completed high school but do not have a college degree earn 22 percent more than similarly educated Black workers.
The study grew out of previous research by academics and Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit social venture. That research focused on workers without a college degree but with work experience that could make them candidates for higher-paying jobs — a group called STARs, for those who are “skilled through alternative routes.” The majority of American workers are not college graduates.
As that research was conducted, it became clear how differently Black workers experienced the labor market. They earn less than their white peers and are less likely to be upwardly mobile, said Papia Debroy, senior vice president in charge of research at Opportunity@Work.
The goal of the new report, she said, was to gain a deeper understanding of occupational segregation and to support efforts to “activate pathways to mobility.”
Dr. Debroy pointed to Futuro Health, a nonprofit in California, as the kind of program that is lifting large numbers of workers onto career paths.
Futuro Health was created in 2020, its initial funding a result of contract negotiations between Kaiser Permanente, a big hospital system, and the regional health care workers unit of the Service Employees International Union.
Health care, with its robust demand for trained workers, seemed a promising industry for a large upward-mobility program, said Van Ton-Quinlivan, chief executive of the nonprofit.
Futuro Health focuses on so-called allied health occupations — a broad swath of roles that include medical assistants, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomists, community health workers and health technology specialists, but not doctors or registered nurses. Allied health jobs make up more than 60 percent of the health care work force.
More than 8,000 workers have enrolled in the nonprofit’s courses, and the completion rate is 83 percent, according to data from its educational partners. The program, which is free to students, involves not only technical training but also courses in communication and interpersonal skills.
Justice Joel, 24, enrolled in the nonprofit’s program while working at a ramen restaurant in San Francisco. Completing the online and in-person classes, and a two-month internship, took about a year.
Today, Mr. Joel, who is Black, works as a medical technician for Kaiser in Oakland, Calif. He earns more than $60,000 a year, and is studying to become a licensed vocational nurse. His long-term goal is to be a registered nurse with a college degree.
The Futuro Health program, he said, gave him not only skills but confidence. “It was a huge, huge boost to my financial life and my career life,” Mr. Joel said.
Steve Lohr covers technology, economics and work force issues. He was part of the team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2013. More about Steve Lohr
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