National Data | The Employment Bus: Immigrants Drive, Blacks Sit in the Back
June 22, 2006, 05:00 AM
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For many blacks, the Bush economic recovery is an unsubstantiated rumor. Black unemployment rates have remained in low double digits since 2002, while an astronomical 36.3 percent of black males 16 to 19 years old were unemployed in 2005. [BLS, Monthly Labor Review, May 2006. Table 6.] These figures exclude incarcerated individuals not counted in the labor force.

Recent studies by experts at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and other institutions find poorly educated black men are more alienated from mainstream society and the economy than comparable whites or Hispanics. [Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn, By Eric Eckholm, New York Times, March 20, 2006.]

There is no shortage of explanations:

  • The shift of factory work out of urban centers deprived Blacks of what had been a ticket to a middle-class income.


  • Welfare reform is credited with bringing uneducated black females into the labor force, and displacing Black males in the process.


  • Some observers claim the military increasingly shuns black dropouts in favor of more tech-savvy graduates.

But what about…immigration? If mentioned at all, it's as an afterthought in the Ivy League ruminations on the Black man's plight.

But unpublished data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (CPS) make a compelling case for including it as a—or even themajor cause of Black economic decline.

Exhibit A: The number of native-born males in the labor force with less than a high school diploma fell by 58,000 in the last two years (2003 to 2005.). During the same period the number of comparably (un)educated male immigrants rose by 121,000—or by more than twice the decline in native dropouts. (Number junkies: Send an e-mail, and I'll attach the underlying data files.)

We can't conclude from these numbers that immigrant workers displace natives 2:1, or even 1:1 . But the level and trend in unemployment rates for U.S.-born males in general—and Black males in particular—certainly point that way

For starters, CPS data show that the unemployment rate for foreign-born males fell below that of U.S.-born males for the first time in 2005. While the native born rate fell from 4.9 percent to 3.9 percent between 2003 and 2005, the rate for foreign born male workers fell from 5.7 percent to 3.7 percent. (Table 1.)

The one exception: U.S.-born Black male dropouts. Their unemployment rate increased from 14.5 percent in 2003 to 15.0 percent in 2005—despite there being fewer of them.

By contrast, unemployment rates for native white and Hispanic dropouts declined—albeit by not nearly as much as the decline among immigrant dropouts.

Indeed, U.S. employers' preference for uneducated immigrant workers—and their aversion to uneducated natives—screams out in the data. Just compare unemployment rates for male dropouts of different races in 2005:

All races: U.S.-born: 8.1% Foreign-born: 4.4%
White, non-Hispanic: U.S.-born: 6.7% Foreign-born: 4.8%
Black, non-Hispanic: U.S.-born: 15.0% Foreign-born: 4.3%
Hispanics: U.S.-born: 7.3% Foreign-born: 4.4%

Obviously, immigration does not discriminate on the basis of race. Native whites and Hispanics both suffer relative to their immigrant counterparts. The difference is one of degree. Not only are U.S.-born black dropouts unemployed at far greater rates than immigrants (including Black immigrants), they represent an above-average share of the black labor force.

High school dropouts represent the following shares of U.S.-born male labor-forces in 2005:

All races: 7.6%
White, non-Hispanic: 5.3%
Black, non-Hispanic: 11.0%
Hispanic: 18.5%

It's easy to pontificate about the chronically low education levels of U.S. Blacks, but this begs the question of why uneducated Blacks fare so much worse than uneducated immigrants.


  • Q: Are they undercut by illegals for whom the U.S. minimum wage is 10-times what they would earn at home? A: Probably.

In a word: the economic distress suffered by Black workers may not be self-inflicted, but imported from abroad.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.