Sociologist Jennifer Laird was researching unemployment among Mexican immigrants when she came upon some interesting numbers on black workers in the public sector and employment effects of the Great Recession. It piqued her interest and so she decided to keep digging.
She found that while public sector employment had long served as a source of stable employment among black Americans, often enabling mobility into the middle class, downsizing during the Great Recession disproportionately hurt black workers and resulted in greater racial disparities in the public sector. Specifically, Laird, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, found that black public sector workers were more likely to become unemployed than their white or Hispanic counterparts. And even though blacks are considered over-represented in the public sector from a purely statistical viewpoint and relative to overall population numbers — and so they would naturally be more affected by public spending cuts — Laird still found that black public sector employees lost their jobs at a higher rate than their white counterparts.
“It’s not just that unemployment rates were higher,” Laird told me. “It’s that these were really good jobs with really transparent promotion ladders that were high-paying relative to the private sector, so it has direct implications for the black middle class and upward mobility for black workers.”
To conduct the study, Laird used Current Population Survey data between 2003 and 2013 to examine changes in public sector employment. Among her many findings, Laird discovered that black women experienced a particularly strong impact — the black-white employment gap for women increased almost sixfold during the years following the recession, growing from less than a percentage point in 2008 to more than 5 percentage points in 2011. And even after public sector employment for black men returned to their pre-recession levels in 2013, public sector employment among black women was more than 4 percentage points lower than it was in 2008.
“I was surprised to the extent that the public sector wasn’t operating the way we assumed it would,” Laird said. “I had always assumed that public sector employment provided a certain amount of protection, so it was surprising to see how (black employment) fell, particularly for black women.”
The study also found that among unemployed public sector workers, black women were the least likely to find private sector employment and most likely to exit the labor market. Laird, who presented her findings during the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting earlier this month, writes:
My results point to a post-recession double disadvantage for black public sector women: they are concentrated in a shrinking sector of the economy, and they are substantially more likely than other public sector workers to be without work. These two trends are a historical break for the public sector labor market. Among public sector workers, black women are the most likely to enter unemployment and the most likely to exit the labor force. I find that race gaps in public sector employment cannot be explained by differences in education, occupation, or any of the other measurable factors that are typically associated with employment.
Traditionally, working in the public sector is thought to have a protective effect on employment. But Laird found that protective effect “decreased substantially” for black workers, and especially for black women, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, even while white workers remained relatively insulated from job cuts. The data Laird used in her study doesn’t point to the reasons why black workers were hit disproportionately by recession-related job cuts. However, she had a few educated guesses.
She told me that in some instances, the rapid pace of public sector reforms might have contributed. In other words, if public sector management was under extreme pressure to reduce the size of their workforces quickly, layoffs might not have happened in the fairest manner.
For example, in the study, Laird points to Wisconsin, which enacted “sharp and immediate” budget cuts for municipalities in 2011. In the aftermath of such cuts, public sector employment among black residents in Wisconsin continued to decline into 2012, while such employment was rebounding in other states. Laird also hypothesized that as public sector jobs were eliminated and then recreated, jobs that had previously only required a high school education might have now demanded college degrees — “the reclassification of jobs could have had unintended consequences,” she said.
Overall, Laird told me the big takeaway from her study is that cuts in public spending and their related effects on public employment can have inadvertent consequences for certain populations. In turn, she hopes her study will encourage decision-makers to carefully consider how changes in public sector spending affect different communities.
In conclusion, her study suggested “that without a course correction, further efforts to dismantle the public sector will most likely have a negative effect on the workers who have historically gained the most from public sector employment.”
For a full copy of Laird’s study, visit http://students.washington.edu/jdlaird.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.