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Published: Oct 17, 2019 6 min read
Illustration by Lixia Guo; Getty Images

White workers still claim a disproportionate share of decent paying jobs, and while black and Latino workers have made gains, the equity gap has actually worsened in the past 25 years.

That’s the major finding in a new report out today from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, which has been examining where “good jobs” are in today’s economy and who has them.

“The answer is somewhat complicated, but the bottom line is white people get them and they still get the best of them,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s CEW and a co-author of the study.

The center defines a “good job” as one that pays “family-sustaining wages.” Specifically, they use a minimum of $35,000 for workers between the ages of 25 and 44 and at least $45,000 for older workers. Overall, the median salary for those with such jobs is $65,000 per person, which is about $7,000 higher than median household income in 2016.

The center has previously looked at whether there are good jobs for high school diploma holders and what good jobs have been created in the years after the recession. In this study, the researchers looked at jobs, education levels, and earnings for the three largest racial and ethnic groups. About 75% of the 800 occupations the Bureau of Labor Statistic tracks pay median wages above the $35,000 threshold the researchers use.

The researchers found in 2016, white workers held 77% of all the good jobs in the country, despite only making up 69% of the workforce. Black workers and Latino workers, on the other had, were underrepresented in good jobs: Black workers held 10% of good jobs, and 13% of all jobs, while Latino workers held 13% of good jobs and 18% of jobs overall.

While all three groups have more workers in good jobs, white workers are so far ahead and are still moving forward, so a persistent gap remains. In 1991, white workers had 6 percentage point advantage. In 2016, it’d grown to 8 percentage points, according to the report.

Those who have been successful in the new economy tend to have at least some education after high school, while those with only a high school diploma have “faced a vicious game of musical chairs,” the authors write. Those workers with only a high school diploma are competing for 7.9 million fewer jobs in 2016 than existed in 1991.

That’s why access to education, whether a four-year degree or a shorter program that will qualify them for “middle-skills” jobs is so important. Yet even as blacks and Latinos have earned degrees, workers still earn less than white workers. Previous research shows that 11% to 18% of the wage gap between white workers and their black and Latino peers is unexplained by education levels, industry, geography, or other measurable differences, meaning economists attribute it to discrimination.

Those salary differences add up to massive sum, according to the report. The researchers estimate white workers as a group are paid $554 billion more—every single year—than they would be if good jobs and earnings were equitably distributed in the workplace. The result is that black and Latino workers earn less—$202 billion and $352 billion less, respectively.

The researchers say advantages white workers have today are due to historical discrimination, as well as educational and economic shifts that date back decades. Access to GI Bill benefits after World War II was unequal, for example, because black veterans had limited access to colleges. In the south, black veterans could enroll in only about 100 colleges, more than 25% of which were two-year junior colleges, the authors found.

Greater education gave whites more access to high-paying jobs, while lending policies restricted access to housing for black Americans. Higher incomes and homeownership helped white families build wealth. In the 1980s, when the economy began to shift from blue-collar jobs to skills-based jobs that required some level of postsecondary education, that generational wealth meant white families were poised to attend en masse, even as the cost of college rose.

Because the causes of current workforce gaps started in previous generations, that suggests there are still decades of unequal distribution to come.

White workers have "essentially ensured dominance in the labor market for at least 30 years to come,” Carnevale said.

To help, the authors suggest increased funding for colleges that enroll and graduate larger numbers of black and Latino students, alongside training to help displaced workers gain new skills. They also call for promoting equity and diversity in the workforce through measures such as increased funding and enforcement powers for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to alleviate discrimination in hiring and pay.