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Black Men's Wage Gain Traced in Study : Commission Credits Education Improvements, Migration North

September 08, 1986|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Black men made "substantial" progress from 1940 to 1980 toward catching up with white men in average weekly earnings, according to a report by the staff of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

The progress was made in part because of improvements in education and migration to higher-paid jobs in the North and in part because of civil rights improvements and declining levels of discrimination, the staff report said.

The report said that in 1940 the average weekly wage or salary of all black men ages 25 to 64 who worked full time or part time was 43.6% of that of white men. Ten years later, the black weekly figure grew to 60.8% of that of whites; in 1960 it slipped to 59.2%; in 1970 it rose to 64.3%, and by 1980 it had reached 72% of the white male figure.

300% Increase in Wages

Black male weekly wages rose an average of 300% in the 40-year period after accounting for inflation, while those of white men rose 163%.

The report, which will go before the commission Thursday for review, found that about two-fifths of the improvement in the black-white ratio was traceable to increased schooling for blacks and their shift from low-paid rural jobs in the South to higher-paid jobs in the North and in some Southern areas.

The rest of the improvement, the report said, is not readily explainable, but a substantial proportion is probably attributable to federal civil rights actions and a general decline in the amount of discrimination.

However, in a finding that some civil rights spokesmen complained underplays the impact of federal civil rights laws, the report said there is insufficient evidence to show "conclusively" how much civil rights policies had contributed toward improvement in black wages.

Earlier Progress Marked

It said that while "federal civil rights programs have undoubtedly contributed to a reduction of discriminatory behavior in the labor market, they are not the sole source of the rising economic status of blacks, as evidenced by the fact that black progress was as great between 1940 and 1960 before federal programs were enacted, as between 1960 and 1980, a period of considerable federal activity. . . . It has not been possible, however, to determine which of the many types of policies have been particularly effective or ineffective."

In another controversial section, the report sought to explain why the labor market participation of black males dropped from 94% in 1940 to less than 83% by 1980, with particularly high reductions among older black men, while white male participation dropped from 94 to 90%.

It found that much of the decline for black and white men resulted from liberalization of federal disability programs, noting that more blacks than whites are in physical labor at which they are likely to incur disabling injuries. In addition, the report said, other factors may be the availability of welfare, the high black crime and incarceration rates, and the fact that blacks have higher unemployment rates and are more likely than whites to become discouraged in seeking jobs and drop out of the labor force.

'Overstates Black Gains'

William Julius Wilson, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Chicago, said that because the earnings data was only tabulated for those in the labor market, leaving out jobless blacks who dropped out of the labor market from discouragement, it "overstates black gains." Moreover, Wilson said sections linking reduced black job-holding to increased availability of welfare, disability payments and crime ignore "the overwhelming evidence that it is unemployment that increases welfare, that increases crime."

Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the report shows a "ludicrous" attempt "to minimize the impact of the civil rights laws." He said: "It contradicts virtually every other study, which shows definite and direct economic benefits from civil rights laws."

Looking at 1980, the report said that for those age 25 to 34, about 27% of the black-white wage gap is attributable to the fact that blacks attend fewer years of school than whites; about 11% results from the fact that even after northward migrations, half of all blacks live in the South, where wages are generally lower; about 7.5% is attributable to the fact that single men generally earn less than married men, and a smaller proportion of black men are married, and 2.4% to a higher concentration of blacks in low-paying industries.

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