Low-Income Men at the Margins Caught at the Intersection of Race, Place, and Poverty. Employment


Educational disparities have direct and immediate consequences in the labor market, and these disparities tend to be exacerbated during a recession. But for men of color, the employment gap—whether measured by unemployment rates or employment-to-population ratios7—remains large in good times and in bad. The unemployment rate among African Americans is twice that of whites; the rate among Hispanics is 1.5 that of whites. Moreover, when employed, African Americans’ wages tend to be lower.

In 2012, the annual average unemployment rate for white men age 20 and older was 6.7 percent, while the rate for African American men was 14.0 percent.8  Among the symposium’s target demographic, low-income men age 18–44 with no bachelor’s degree, there are vast disparities by race. Tabulations of rates for 2008–10 reveal that Hispanic men in this particular group have the lowest unemployment rate at 14.5 percent while white men are at 21.0 percent. Low-income African American men suffer from the highest rate of unemployment at 34.8 percent. In comparison, the rate for all men age 18–44 during the same period was 10.6 percent.9 A 2012 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report to Congress indicated that racial differences in employment among less-educated men is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1969, 92.8 percent of white males age 18–65 with no more than a high school diploma worked, compared with 89.9 percent of African American men within the same parameters. By 2009, the employment rates for these two groups had diverged to 76.7 and 60.0 percent, respectively. Employment rates among similar Hispanic men have remained relatively consistent with those of white men but have dipped slightly in recent years to 80.1 percent (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] 2012). In addition to the unemployment crisis among African Americans, “bad jobs” are an issue. Much of current public policy is focused on unemployment, but low-wage, dead-end jobs can be equally detrimental—especially when they do not pay living wages (Pitts 2007).

Native-Born and Foreign-Born Men

Foreign-born Hispanic men fare relatively better on some measures of employment: they have higher labor force participation rates than native-born whites and Hispanics, and participation rates are high across all education levels (Pew Hispanic Center 2009; Terrazas 2011). The prerecession unemployment rate for foreign-born Hispanics was also below the average rate for all U.S. workers (native-born Hispanics had higher unemployment rates, per Kochhar 2008). But their high work effort does not translate into living wages and incomes or economic mobility. A large share of Hispanic immigrants is employed in lower-wage jobs and occupations. Hispanics’ job prospects are often limited by lack of English fluency, low job skills, and immigration status (Capps and Fortuny 2008; Hall, Greenman, and Farkas 2010; Terrazas 2011). Foreign-born Hispanics, especially the less-educated young or the undocumented, are also more vulnerable to the business cycle and experience relatively larger job losses during recessions (Orrenius and Zavodny 2009; Papademetriou and Terrazas 2009).

Communities Lacking Job Opportunities

In addition to poor employment outcomes resulting from low educational attainment, men of color are often at a geographic disadvantage, living in communities that lack opportunities for steady and livable-wage employment. This, along with discrimination, contributes to their lower incomes. Qualitative research sheds light on men’s perspectives on geographic location and isolation as well as their perceptions about employment discrimination.

Ethnographers and other qualitative researchers describe strategies men use for economic survival— despite and in light of barriers. Several authors discuss trade-offs that lead some men into the illegal or unregulated economy (Bourgois 1996; Edin and Nelson 2004; Levitt and Venkatesh 2001; Valenzuela 2003). Although a common and supported understanding is that low-skilled work has “disappeared” for many low-income men (Wilson 1996), another interpretation is that the jobs still exist but have gone underground. Scarce formal job opportunities (often aggravated by prior criminal action or drug use) push men into the unregulated economy (Edin and Nelson 2004).

Ethnographers provide guidance for deciphering the decisions men make, documenting men’s social realities, constraints, and perceptions. Outsiders looking in may interpret men’s actions simplistically as representing flawed value systems (e.g., engaging in illegal activities). But often, as Young (1999) concludes, men’s decisions facilitate immediate survival in a resource-poor social environment. Unfortunately, some of these decisions may also handicap men’s chances to advance in mainstream society. Ethnographic research reveals how living in communities in which few neighbors and family members have good-paying jobs can shape how low-income men evaluate their job prospects. A study in inner-city Detroit explored the lives of 26 low-income men age 18–24 who had not been gainfully employed for longer than six months in any given year since they were 16. Perhaps surprisingly, many in the group believed numerous jobs were available to them. However, they felt the jobs neither supplied the requisite wages for raising a family nor provided sufficient challenge or respect for workers. The men were therefore uncommitted to the available job prospects (Young 2006).

Day Labor and Other Informal Work

Low-income men tend to experience more job insecurity than higher-income men. One group of workers particularly vulnerable to business cycles and general discrimination is day laborers. Day labor, typically informal but also formal, employs mostly immigrant men (especially the lower-skilled, more recent, or undocumented) and other displaced workers. This segment of the nonstandard economy has grown rapidly in the past three decades and has become an important way to secure construction, landscaping, and factory work (Valenzuela 2003). Immigrant day laborers often lack the necessary resources to relocate or return home when the jobs disappear or when cities and counties pass antisolicitation or other measures meant to curb this type of informal employment (Bhimji 2010).

Community isolation and immigration status may not be the only reason some low-income men are less engaged in the formal economy. A paper by Nightingale and Wandner (2011) also identifies government policies that make it less attractive for low-wage workers to move into the formal sector. Garnishment of wages for child support arrears and the need to pay self-employment taxes if working formally can discourage such moves. Differences in network ties are another barrier that may magnify differences seen across communities, particularly communities of color (Royster 2003). This is true in formal employment but in the unregulated economy as well (Edin and Nelson 2004).

Evidence and Views on Discrimination

Scholars and job-seekers alike often wonder about racial discrimination in hiring practices and how racial prejudice affects low-income men of color. One study paired three job seekers—one African American, one Puerto Rican, and one white, with identical job histories and resumes—and had them apply for the same entry-level jobs in New York City. White applicants were twice as likely as African American applicants to be called back or offered a job. Job search outcomes for Puerto Ricans and whites were not statistically different. When white applicants with criminal records applied for jobs, they were as or more likely than African Americans and Hispanic applicants with no criminal histories to be called back or offered a job (Pager, Western, and Bonikowski 2009). The findings strongly suggest that racial and ethnic discrimination exist in hiring for low-wage jobs.

What do low-income men say about racial discrimination in employment? One study of Buffalo, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey, examined low-income working class adults’ views on the economy during the recessionary periods in the 1980s and early 1990s, and their place within it. Race factored heavily in both African American men’s and white men’s views of unemployment but in different ways. African American men blamed the economy and particularly racial prejudice. White men also saw race as a culprit, blaming much of their economic troubles on African American men and affirmative action (Weis and Fine 1996). More recent analysis of African American men in Detroit revealed sentiments similar to those of African American men in other locations. In addition to naming insufficient education and transportation as obstacles, the men contended employers often would not hire them because of their race (Young 2006).

Mainstream Aspirations despite Barriers

Although low-income men face employment obstacles and may be drawn to unregulated or illegal work, many have work ethics and aspirations similar to middle- and higher-income workers (Edin and Nelson 2004; Newman 1999; Young 2006). In some respects, strong values and norms may drive men into the unregulated economy, especially when their goal is to support children (Edin and Nelson 2004). Many low-income men in the Detroit study cited earlier aspire to have careers and finish their educations (Young 2006).

Research and knowledge about low-income men and employment leave unanswered questions about how to reconcile men’s desire for careers and stable incomes with the realities of weak job opportunities, poor employment histories, and discrimination. Further, challenges and solutions concerning immigration status and employment often become political and contentious. So what are the opportunities for low-income men age 18–44 who want to be connected to the workforce but are unable to do so for some of the reasons described above? And how should competing priorities, such as earning enough to take care of children and family versus engaging in legal or regulated work when opportunities are scarce or otherwise unprofitable, be addressed?



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