Skip to main content

Is Racism Slowing Job Recovery?

Public sector job creation might be lagging because of anti-black sentiment.
U.S. Post Office in Hayes, Virginia. (Photo: sonicimac/Flickr)

U.S. Post Office in Hayes, Virginia. (Photo: sonicimac/Flickr)

The recovery from the 2008 financial crisis has been one of the slowest in history. Job growth, for example, has been at around 6.5 percent, as compared with 12.9 percent in previous recoveries. There are numerous reasons for this sluggish growth. But one of the most depressing may be racism.

The argument that racism has slowed growth has two parts. First, the central cause of the poor recovery is faltering public sector employment. And, second, political antipathy for the public sector, and reluctance to invest in it, is spurred by the (accurate) belief that public sector employees are disproportionately black.

There's no question that the first part of this argument is accurate; the public sector has been a significant drag on the economic recovery. In December 2014, public sector employment had still not rebounded to the levels of public sector employment in December 2007, according to an article by Lucy Dadayan and Donald J. Boyd at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute.

In the past, racialized arguments against government spending were often focused on welfare and poverty programs. But recently, similar rhetoric about lazy, government-supported do-nothings has been deployed against public sector workers.

State and local government employment accounts for 14 percent of total employment in the United States. As a result, even though private sector jobs have rebounded, weakness in the public sector drags down the economy as a whole. David Cooper, an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, says that taking into account population growth, "we should have added about 380,000 public sector workers to what we had in July 2008." Instead, jobs were cut, which means that we currently have a state and local jobs deficit of "about a million people." Since there are currently about 10 million unemployed people in the U.S., one million new jobs would be a significant economic boost—and that's not even counting that, as Cooper says, "when you have more people on the roles working in classrooms or policeman, fireman, whatever, those folks go out and buy things, and that spending ripples out into the economy and actually generates private sector jobs."

The damage to the public sector hit certain communities harder than others—which points to the second part of the argument. Public sector jobs have been disproportionately open to African Americans and women, as Cooper and his colleagues Mary Gable and Algernon Austin documented in a 2012 paper at the EPI. "Historically," they wrote, "the state and local public sectors have provided more equitable opportunities for women and people of color. As a result, women and African Americans constitute a disproportionately large share of the state and local public-sector workforce."

The article points to many studies documenting ongoing discrimination in private sector jobs against women and African Americans. Comparatively, the public sector has been strongly committed to affirmative action initiatives and equal hiring. As a result, in 2011, women made up 48.3 percent of overall employment, and 59.5 percent of employment in state and local government. In the same year, African Americans comprised 10.9 percent of overall employment, and 12.8 percent of employment in state and local public sector jobs. As of 2014, African Americans were 30 percent more likely to be public employees than were members of any other race. It's in large part because of the state and local government jobs deficit that rates of unemployment are so high for African Americans, and especially for African-American women. In August 2014, black women over the age of 20 had an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent, unchanged from the previous year. Meanwhile, unemployment figures for all adult women declined from 6.2 percent to 5.7 percent from 2013 to 2014.

Why has public sector employment been hit so hard in comparison to previous recessions? Cooper says that it's because there was "a stronger political appetite among certain folks to cut the public sector." In other words, the public sector has had a slow recovery because there has been a political decision to starve it of post-recession funds.

When I ask Cooper if African-American concentration in public sector jobs caused political animus against public sector employees, he says that he is "hesitant to be that cynical, or to think that that is anyone's conscious motivation." But there is evidence that racial attitudes and opposition to the public sector are linked.

First, some studies have shown that anti-government attitudes and anti-black attitudes often go together. Over at Salon, Paul Rosenberg examined General Social Survey data and found that people who believed that homeowners should be allowed to discriminate against blacks, and that blacks "shouldn't push themselves where they're not wanted" were also likely to favor cutting social spending overall. People who said they would not vote for a black president and those who said that blacks lacked the will to succeed were also more likely to resist government spending.

In the past, racialized arguments against government spending were often focused on welfare and poverty programs. But recently, similar rhetoric about lazy, government-supported do-nothings has been deployed against public sector workers, especially in the context of public sector unions. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, has called public sector workers "free loaders" and compared them to "those on public assistance." In Wisconsin, where the battle over public sector unions has been fiercest, Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted interviews in which she found that "[p]ublic employees were often denounced as lazy people who sit behind their desks all day and never get their hands dirty." At the New RepublicJonathan Cohn argued that these stereotypes of public employees echoed stereotypes of welfare queens.

"I think conservatives tend to talk about public sector employment in the abstract, and people don't take the time to think about who those folks actually are," Cooper says, citing the way in which public sector job cuts hurt teachers, firefighters, and police. It may be true that individuals don't think through who is damaged by public sector cuts. But the more disheartening possibility is that people do, in fact, have a sense of who public employees are.

Government programs in the U.S. have historically been viewed as illegitimate because they help black people. The assault on public sector employees seems to build on that history of racism, causing African-American workers to suffer disproportionately during this recovery.