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Something changed in Black unemployment

Unemployment data reveal several differences for race and gender


This post is a bit long, with a puzzling observation and, even after five FRED graphs, no definitive explanation. But sometimes the journey must be the destination…

The (first) graph above shows unemployment rates by race and gender since the start of the Great Recession. It’s clear men’s rates overall are higher than women’s, possibly due to factors such as women’s less-harmonious attachment to the labor market and different gender composition across industries and occupations. Also, Whites overall enjoy a lower unemployment rate than Blacks, which is at least partly due to the differences in the industries and occupations Blacks and Whites tend to work in.

The movements in the unemployment rates also differ, and this is the puzzle we focus on here. Look closely and you’ll see that unemployment rates didn’t start to decline until late 2011 and early 2012 for Black men and mid-2013 for Black women. The decline for Whites occurs much earlier: early 2010 for men and gradually from 2010 to 2012 for women. Has this difference always existed? We’ll need to look back in time to investigate…

…and fortunately we can use FRED’s time slider at the bottom of the graph to do that. The (second) graph above shows the previous recession in 2001; again, we see a longer lag for Blacks than for Whites for unemployment rates to decline.

Stepping back a bit farther… The (third) graph above shows the 1990-91 recession; it looks like all unemployment rates peaked simultaneously and declined over the same time frame.

The (fourth) graph above shows the 1981-82 recession, where the unemployment rates again peaked simultaneously and declined over the same time frame. We can skip the 1980 recession, as it’s so close to this one.

The (fifth) graph above shows the 1974-75 recession, where the unemployment rates again peaked simultaneously and declined over the same time frame, except for Black women, whose unemployment rates don’t seem to have recovered at all.

Let’s summarize: For the 1974-75, 1981-82, and 1990-91 recessions, Black and White unemployment rates essentially peaked and declined over the same time frame. For the 2001 recession and Great Recession, Black rates took longer to decline than White rates.

What changed?

Even if we can’t provide an answer here, we can suggest where you might do some additional research on the topic. Look to FRASER, FRED’s sibling site, for a deeper examination of historical demographics related to employment: The statistical publications “Employment and Earnings” (1954-2007) and “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook” (2004-2010) are good examples. The latter focuses mainly on differences between the sexes, but also provides statistical tables that relate to race, including one on multiple jobholders.

How these graphs were created: From the employment situation release table, select the series you want according to race, gender, and age and click “Add to Graph.” For all FRED graphs, you have three ways to select the dates you want to display: (1) the date picker above the graph, (2) the time slider below the graph, or (3) selecting the range to highlight within the graph (click and drag).

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

View on FRED, series used in this post: LNS14000028, LNS14000029, LNS14000031, LNS14000032


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