Posted on March 6, 2021

Why Are Employment Rates So Low Among Black Men?

Harry J. Holzer, Brookings Institution, March 1, 2021

As the U.S. grapples with its long history of racial exploitation and exclusion and the unacceptably large racial disparities in virtually all meaningful walks of life, a spotlight is once again beginning to focus on the plight of Black men in the U.S.

Such concern is not unprecedented. About 15 years ago, there was a brief flurry of attention paid to the high incarceration and low employment rates of Black men, and their consequences for Black families and communities. Indeed, some positive policy efforts ensued – particularly in the area of incarceration, where a broad consensus developed on the harmful effects of mass incarceration and the need for policy to lower it, and to help justice-involved individuals reenter society.  Yet little positive effort was made at that time, or at any time since, to improve employment outcomes among Black men and youth; and these outcomes remain disturbingly weak.

Below I provide the latest evidence on employment rates of Black men, and review what we know about its causes. {snip}


Table 1 indicates the following:

  • Black men have the highest unemployment rates of any race/gender group, and the lowest labor force participation and employment rates among men; and
  • Black women work more than white and Latina women, and Black male participation and employment rates are just a bit higher than those of Black women (while white and Latino men work more than women in each group).

While these Black male employment outcomes are already disturbing, they obscure another important fact: the official BLS statistics don’t count many Black men with low employment, and adjusting for this fact further reduces measured Black male employment and earnings rates.

The fact that so many Black men are missing from the official data is evident when we compare the reported population sizes in the BLS data between Black men and women, where we find that the former are 17 percent below the latter. Male-female population gaps among white and Latino groups are not remotely as high. Differential mortality rates and immigrant arrival by gender can account for just a few percentage points of the observed gaps in population between Black males and females.

There appear to be two additional factors accounting for the lower observed civilian noninstitutional population of Black men: 1) The “undercount” of such men in such surveys; and 2) The large population of Black men incarcerated at any time. Of the 15 percentage-point gap in the Black male and female populations for ages 25-54, about 7 points are due to incarceration and 8 to the undercount among those non-incarcerated.


The data indicate extremely high rates of prime age Black men without work – over a third are not working at the time of the survey and over a quarter over the entire past year. Those incarcerated account for a third of those out of the labor force. Adjusting for those undercounted would likely raise the racial gaps we observe.


For decades, a research literature by social scientist has documented earnings and employment gaps between Black and white Americans, and between Black men and other men more specifically, and analyzed their causes.

In my view, the major causes of lower employment and earnings among Black men than other groups can be summarized as follows:

  • Proximate causes: Lower education, skills and work experience
  • Ultimate causes: Discrimination and social/spatial isolation
  • Mediating factors: Lower marriage/child custody rates and worse health
  • Reinforcing long-run factors: Crime/incarceration and child support


  1. Proximate causes: Education, skills, and work experience

It is widely known that education, skills, and work experience are major determinants of employment and earnings in the U.S. Indeed, gaps in “human capital” across race and class groups has increasingly driven the rising inequality in earnings that we observe over the past several decades.

It is also well known that Black Americans lag behind white Americans (and Asian Americans) in educational attainment, and that men generally lag behind women. For instance, data on bachelor’s degree (BA/BS) attainment by race and gender in 2019 show that .24 and .28 have such degrees among Black males and females, ages 25 and over; comparable percentages among whites are .36 and .37.[8] If adjusted for undercounting and incarceration among Black men, the gaps between them and the other groups would be higher.

The lower educational attainment of Black men, relative to both white men and Black women, no doubt reduces their earnings levels and employment relative to both groups. Indeed, Black men have relatively lower educational attainment than Black women and white men and women at other levels of education as well (such as high school completion and associate degree attainment).

Of course, there have been growing gaps in labor force activity between college and non-college men of all races, as the labor force activity of high-school educated men has been declining for decades. Even so, employment rates among Black men with high school or less education have been well below and declined more rapidly than those of similar white and Latino men. The disappearance of well-paying jobs in durable manufacturing and other industries, and the decline of unions, have hurt the earnings and employment of Black men more than white and Latino men; and the stagnation of the federal minimum wage has likely hurt as well.

Observed gaps between Black men, Black women, and white men and women can also be found on other important dimensions of skill. For instance, the “achievement gap” between white and Black people (and also between men and women), as measured by scores on standardized tests, has been well-documented. Some evidence suggests the gap narrowed modestly in the 1980s and 1990s but has remained fairly stable since then. Test scores reflect cognitive skills that help determine not only higher education attainment, but labor market rewards as well.

Though they have been somewhat less documented and explored, a range of non-cognitive or socio-emotional skills – such as external and internal direction of aggression, motivation, and social skills – contribute importantly to both educational attainment and earnings as well. Here again, the evidence suggests that the Black population lags behind the white population along a number of dimensions.


At the same time, the observed racial gaps in education, cognitive and noncognitive skills, and work experience raise important questions about what drives these gaps in the first place.

  1. Ultimate causes: Discrimination and social/spatial isolation

There is abundant evidence that Black Americans and especially Black men face systematic discrimination in the labor market and in other walks of life, such as schooling. This discrimination limits their ability to accumulate skills and education credentials as well as work experience.


In addition, racial segregation and social isolation contribute to weak education and employment outcomes as well. {snip}

Social networks among Black Americans, and especially those residing in segregated neighborhoods, tend to be weak as well. We have long known that such networks play important roles in helping workers find jobs; but new evidence is now appearing that such networks impede the ability of Black Americans, and especially men, to have access to well-paying jobs in many regions of the U.S. And given the absence of Black men from the labor market in many such neighborhoods, as we noted earlier, the networks available to younger Black men now entering the labor market are especially too weak to help those without college degrees find and keep well-paying jobs.

3) Mediating factors: Marriage and health

Declining employment among less-educated men in the U.S., and especially Black men, has been correlated with a decline in marriage rates. It is hard to determine exactly to what extent this relationship is causal; and, if it is, in which direction the causation works. What seems most likely is that causal effects work both ways – on the one hand, a lack of effective employment opportunities renders many (Black) men as less “marriageable”; on the other hand, lower marriage rates reduce the incentives of men to work to support their families.

Weak health also impedes labor force activity, especially among less-educated men. The health of less-educated white men has deteriorated the most in recent years, due to substance abuse and obesity, and racial gaps in such well-being have narrowed; but most evidence suggests that morbidity and mortality among Black men continues to be higher than among comparably educated white men. Self-reported disability also appears to be very high among Black men and women out of the labor force in Detroit and other major cities.

4) Reinforcing long-run factors: Crime/incarceration and child support

The enormous racial disparity in incarceration rates in the U.S. is widely known. At its peak, it was estimated that about one-third of all Black men appeared likely to spend some time in their lives being incarcerated, while among high school dropouts the rate was an appalling two-thirds.

The higher incarceration rate among Black Americans, in turn, is likely driven by three factors:

  • Higher participation in crime, including violent crime;
  • Harsher criminal sentences imposed on the crimes that Black men are relatively more likely to commit (such as possession and sales of crack cocaine relative to powder); and
  • Discriminatory policing and more frequent conviction in the criminal justice system